Eco-Anxiety: Millennials, Gen Z, And A Burning Planet
This week, climate scientists issued a climate ‘code red’ for humanity.
Unfortunately, it is as scary as it sounds 😔 Drawing conclusions from more than 1400 studies, the report paints a portrait of a bleak future on planet Earth unless the nations of the world do not back climate change commitments with drastic and impactful action.
What is at stake? Humanity, for starters. Life as we know it too.
In the last several weeks, devastating wildfires have erupted in Turkey, Algeria, Cyprus, and Greece and the United States. Uncharacteristic heat waves, catastrophic hurricanes, and environmental refugees…it’s difficult to imagine these events becoming commonplace, and yet that is the reality we are facing.
What does this have to do with mental health?
Well, everything. Eco-anxiety is a growing mental health concern amongst younger generations in particular.
In this post, we will cover:
What eco-anxiety (or climate change anxiety) is
How eco-anxiety is impacting younger generations
Steps we can take to manage eco-anxiety
What Is Eco-Anxiety?
Eco-anxiety describes the chronic or severe anxiety we may experience due to humanity’s relationship with and impact on the environment. It’s a persistent worry about the future of our planet and its inhabitants- this includes humans, other animals, plants and wildlife.
Although it’s not an official diagnosis, eco-anxiety has been recognized by the American Psychological Association as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”.
Eco-anxiety can manifest as:
- A trauma response
- Anxiety and fear about the future
- Preoccupation with news and media coverage on extreme weather events fuelled by climate change
- A sense of helplessness
- Feeling a loss of agency and control in life
- Feelings of guilt about personal and generational impact on the environment
You can experience eco-anxiety if you are directly impacted by the short-term and long-term consequences of climate change, such as wildfires, extreme weather events, droughts, displacement, etc.
You can also experience eco-anxiety if people you love live in places that are being directly affected by climate change events or are at risk of being drastically affected in the coming years.
Those of us who may not directly experience the consequences of climate change yet can also experience eco-anxiety through media coverage of extreme weather events, destruction of habitats, loss of species and communities, and even civil wars related to scarcity of resources.
The Impact Of Eco-Anxiety On Younger Generations
Millennials and Gen Z are experiencing increased anguish about the reality of living through and managing the dire consequences of climate change.
Environmental justice is a core issue for younger generations. However, we must acknowledge that no one ever wanted the burden of this cause. Younger generations are passionate about climate justice because they have to be- and this is inherently an anxiety-inducing position to be in!
One survey demonstrated that approximately 83% of Gen Z Americans (between the ages of 14 and 24) are worried about the planet and the direct impacts of environmental disruption on their health and well-being.
Moreover, young people are constantly told they are the generation that “must act” to fix the mess previous generations have made. Millennials and Gen Z have every reason to feel bitter towards older generations and governments that have placed a monumental burden on young people to “solve” a mess not of their own making.
Eco-anxiety is personal too. Yes, young people are concerned about climate disaster events. They are also coping with the personal and existential impacts of living in a time where the future holds perhaps more unknowns than ever before.
Eco and Existential Anxiety
Climate change talks are often accompanied by words such as ‘disaster’, ‘destruction’, and ‘doom’. It’s no wonder that millennials and Gen Z are experiencing existential anxiety tightly intertwined with eco-anxiety.
Here are some of the personal implications of a dire environmental future that millennials and Gen Z are concerned about:
- Dying from climate disaster events rather than old age
- Questioning the importance and value of higher education unless climate change is reversed
- Wondering if they ever will (or should) have children given they have no idea if it will be a world worth bringing a child into
- Fearing a future where the life they were born into may become a memory
- Thinking about the geological features climate change has created a time-limit on (i.e. glaciers) that they, or the future generation may never see
- Balancing current day-to-day concerns (i.e. relationships, school, friendships, careers) with the feeling that it may all be “pointless” one day
What Can You And I Do To Cope With Eco-Anxiety?
Eco-anxiety can leave us feeling helpless. Here are a few ways to cope with eco-anxiety:
Connect With Nature
Fostering a positive relationship with nature can help alleviate feelings of hopelessness. Nature is grounding and helps soothe anxiety. Be intentional about spending time in nature!
Learn About Local Conservation Efforts
Do some research on the local conservation efforts in your area. The impact you have on a community scale is significant. Action also counteracts feelings of helplessness.
Know When To Disengage
Constantly keeping a finger on the pulse can become overwhelming very quicky. It’s also important to note that not all information is presented in a way that is informative and not alarming. Furthermore, sometimes information is not accurate or well-researched.
Consistent exposure to ‘apocalyptic’ keeps us in a constant state of stress. Know when to unplug to protect your wellbeing!
Stay Out Of The Comments Section
The comments section of articles and social media posts can be discouraging. So can certain news outlets. Protect your wellbeing and focus on the information rather than the reactions.
Focus On What Is Within Your Control
There are many factors we can exert our efforts towards. Learning about these and educating others is one way we can gain our power back. We can also make an impact on wider scale policy changes by writing to politicians and participating in local advocacy efforts.
Wrapping Up: Reflections From On Top Of A Glacier
I am writing this piece a day after visiting the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta.
In about 80 years, Athabasca and its surrounding glaciers will no longer exist. To put that into perspective, 80 years is within the lifetime of the next generation, many of whose members are already here.
Despite the unparalleled beauty of the glaciers, this reality was sobering.
In Southern Ontario, the direct impact of climate change is not always apparent, however the issue is very much close. We encourage you to research the potential effect on climate change in your community.
Engage and participate where you can and stay in touch with people and organizations that encourage a sense of optimism ❤️
Until next time!
Mental Health Content Specialist
Hala Shamsi is a Social Worker and Mental Health Content Specialist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. She is always deep in the middle of an internet spiral to bring you fresh insights into the world of mental wellness.
Is there a topic you want to see covered in this blog? Feel free to reach out at email@example.com to let her know!