By: Brian Warner
In fifth grade, my homeroom teacher told us that scientists had discovered an asteroid headed directly at Earth that would wipe out life in about twenty years (yes, this really happened). 10-year-old me did the math, realizing I’d only live to be about thirty before the world ended, and, probably for the first time, felt a deep sense of existential dread.
Well, I turn thirty this year and haven’t heard about that asteroid since then, so either those scientists are terrible procrastinators or my teacher turned out to be misinformed. But has that stopped me from feeling a pang of anxiety about it literally once a week every week for the past twenty years?
The good (?) news is that I’m far from being alone. And if you ever feel similarly, you are too.
In 2017, the American Psychological Association defined “eco-anxiety” or “climate anxiety” as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Doom. Not the first four-letter-word that comes to my mind when I feel like the world may be ending, but it’s certainly fitting.
And even though you can’t get a diagnosis from your therapist for eco-anxiety (it isn’t currently recognized as a mental illness), that doesn’t mean the mental health world isn’t taking notice. More than 80% of children and young adults are at least “moderately” worried about climate change, and nearly 60% say that they’re “very or extremely” worried. 20% even say that it impacts where they want to go to college.
“We see that a lot of young people are saying, I think my life will be worse than my parents’ lives,” says Dr. Sarah Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Suffolk University.
Like generalized anxiety disorder, eco-anxiety can make it hard to relax and concentrate, bring on feelings of tension and irritability, lead to panic attacks, and disrupt healthy sleep habits – a massive 70% of Americans say that they’ve lost sleep because they were too busy worrying about climate change. But unlike typical anxiety, it can also boost more societal, existential feelings, like helplessness and disempowerment.
And the worst part? It kind of makes sense to feel disempowered.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not in charge of much in the way of environmental impact. I don’t have the money or the power to leave behind a carbon footprint (to quote the comedian Ophira Eisenberg, the best I can hope for is a graphite stiletto mark).
“[S]olutions for this crisis aren’t reconcilable by any individual,” Britt Wray, a human and planetary health postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, says. “There can be a bit of a trapping in the anxiety that occurs when a person feels like they . . . aren’t able to address the threat by finding the right solution for it.”
For most of us, we’re just along for the ride with ExxonMobil behind the wheel.
But Sarah Jaquette Ray, chair of the environmental studies department at Cal Poly Humboldt and the author of “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety,” says differently.
We often think of climate change as such a big problem and ourselves as too small or too powerless to do anything about it, and that is really going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So perceiving ourselves as far more powerful than we think ourselves to be and perceiving the problem of climate change as much more touchable, those two things in tandem would sort of right size the problem and allow us to feel more empowered to grapple with that.
Dr. Schwartz agrees. “Higher climate change anxiety is correlated with higher symptoms of depression and anxiety. But what we saw was that for young people who have high levels of climate anxiety, if they also have high levels of activism, then we didn’t see any higher levels of depression symptoms.”
Because the main reason eco-anxiety isn’t recognized as a mental illness is simple – when everything’s on fire (like, literally everything), it makes sense to freak out! Scientists have been saying for years, and they’re still saying today, we should be freaking out. Feeling that way for weeks, months, or years isn’t good for you or your health, but stopping to find a fire extinguisher is a better first step than cozying up to the flames and calling it romantic.
That might mean marching and protesting, or it might mean behind the scenes work of signing petitions and supporting other people who are the face of the movement. Dr. Schwartz stresses that whatever activism looks like to you, “the social aspect and peer support of activism” is what matters for fighting off the depression that can come from eco-anxiety.
“There are moments where you’re just like, well, nothing’s ever going to change,” says 15-year-old Darien Rodriguez. “But then there’s also that small feeling that there’s still hope that people will change, and people will come together to help save humanity.”
Because for as many pessimists there may be, and as many jokes can be made, and as many teachers may irrevocably scar students with lifelong anxiety and existential dread (yes I’m still not over it), the world is worth it. And anxiety, depression, dread, and doom don’t need to be a part of that.
In a 2018 interview with the Chicago Sun Times, former astronaut Jim Lovell of the Apollo-era space missions reflected back on seeing Earth from space. It’s easy to imagine that from space, looking down at our planet must feel like looking down from heaven – but as someone who doesn’t have to imagine, Lovell sees it differently.
I began to think that . . . we often say that [we] hope to go to heaven when we die. In reality, we go to heaven when we’re born. We arrive on a [planet] with the proper mass that has the gravity that can contain water and an atmosphere, the very essentials for life. I think our life and our heaven is the time that we’re here on Earth.
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