Counselling psychologist Niamh Delmar shares some insights into climate anxiety and how to tackle it.
Climate anxiety and eco-anxiety is distress associated with a constant worry about climatic and ecological crises.
According to the American Psychological Association, it is a chronic fear of environmental doom, and over three-quarters of Americans experience anxiety over climatic changes. It is not an irrational fear as other worries tend to be. It is an existential dread about the future of the planet and becomes problematic when it affects daily functioning and well-being.
Panic attacks, sleep disruption, and loss of appetite can result. The world is faced with storms, wildfires, global warming, and other unprecedented weather events. We are also witnessing displacing of people from extreme weather.
Studies show that children and young adults are disproportionately extremely impacted by this type of anxiety. According to a study published in the Lancet, involving children and young people aged 16-25 years of age, over 59% reported feeling extremely worried and over 50% felt sad, anxious and helpless about the climate.
Some felt anger towards those in power and their inactivity. Dissatisfaction with Government responses was found to be widespread among this cohort. All this has implications for mental health and those growing up in an environmentally threatened world. Together with the pandemic and war, it creates a sense of insecurity and bleakness about the future.
Studies have also found that adults between the ages of 27 and 45 worry about the carbon footprint of having a child. They also report feeling concerned about bringing a child into a world under threat.
Twenty-somethings are choosing what location to live in based on the impact severe weather could have on those regions. More and more young people are also choosing what to eat and wear in an effort to heal the planet. Many are giving up meat due to the dangers of methane gas. From preschool age, there is talk about recycling, polar caps melting and energy use.
Action is an antidote to anxiety. Channeling anxiety into action alleviates feelings of helplessness. While there may be higher levels of climate anxiety among the young, they are actively engaged in trying to live in more environmentally friendly ways.
They are passionate enough to initiate protests and are inspired by role models such as Greta Thunberg. Young people have launched events such as Global Days of Action for Climate Justice and Fridays for Future Ireland. Youth activism and campaigning instill a collective caring of the planet and camaraderie.
If a child asks about climate change, explore what information they have. Clarify any misinformation or scaremongering. It is important not to be dismissive or minimise their concerns.
Climate change denial exacerbates distress. Encourage conversation and focus on what steps they can take. Let them know that many organisations are helping the planet, and discuss progresses that are unfolding.
Instill some climate optimism. If a young person is feeling overwhelmed, a sense of agency can ameliorate the intensity. UNICEF suggest implementing actions that the whole family can be involved with such as energy conservation and recycling.
Climate Action and Sustainable Development is a new Leaving Certificate subject rolling out in 2024. We need to be mindful of the way environmental education is imparted. Some children and young people may feel distressed after such learning, and the facilitation of a safe space to talk about their fears is essential.
Proactive engagements can be integrated with environmental subjects to channel anxiety. Letters to local politicians and developing plans for a more environmentally friendly school or university are just some examples that work.
School green teams and environmental clubs offer support and connection. Above all, young people need to witness those in power being proactive.
Climate anxiety is alleviated by feeling in control. Rather than taking on the world, take small steps in the home and community.
People can move to a plant-based diet, take up cycling, walk more, use public transport more and find other ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Embracing nature and the outdoors can soothe fears.
Getting offline and immersion in a forest or embracing the smell of the sea boosts mental health and promotes a positive connection with the Earth. Doom scrolling is passive and aggravates anxiety.
Climate anxiety is affecting more people, especially children and younger people. It is a serious issue taken seriously by young minds. We need to mitigate against our youth from becoming overwhelmed.
It affects mental health as the person feels under threat, disillusioned, helpless, pessimistic about the future and/or angry.
You can't take sole responsibility for saving the entire planet, but you can make changes within your remit and advocate for the future of humanity.