How to deal with eco-anxiety

14, Jun, 2022

If you find yourself becoming increasingly anxious when reading the latest headline about climate change, you’re not alone. Recent polls have shown that climate change is a top-of-mind concern for many Canadians.

Eco-anxiety is a form of psychological distress caused by the current and future problems of climate change. Dr. Holli-Anne Passmore is well-versed in the area. She’s written papers on eco-anxiety and potential ways to alleviate its effects through pro-environmental action and connecting with nature.

On 24 March 2022, Passmore presented on nature connectedness and eco-anxiety, and how the two intertwine. Her presentation was the latest in Concordia University of Edmonton’s (CUE) McNeil Centre for Applied Renewable Energy’s Renewable Energy Speaker Series. Throughout the presentation, Passmore broke down the causes of eco-anxiety, how to galvanize those feelings to spur action, and ways to alleviate it regularly.

Passmore and her colleagues in psychology across North America have found that humans tend to form a strong sense of meaning when interacting with nature. The anxiety many of us feel about climate change in part likely stems from the fear of losing that source of meaning and wellbeing. 

“It's really very much reflecting a disruption of our connection to nature as we know it. And this is engendering this whole cascade of existential crises about meaning and death and wellbeing, and our very identity as human beings, and an existential crisis or an existential anxiety,” Passmore explained.

“This is a pathway to meaning that our children may not, and our grandchildren most certainly will not, if things don't change, have the chance to experience,” she said.

Symptoms of eco-anxiety appear to include guilt, demotivation and sensations of being overwhelmed by such an enormous conundrum.

Despite the despair eco-anxiety can cause, there are ways to combat it. Passmore said one of the most effective tools to deal with the anxiety is to simply talk about it with friends and colleagues, even if one has reservations about doing so. This is even more prudent for those working in fields that expose them to difficult climate truths.

“Oftentimes in organizations and businesses in areas where you're focused on hope and renewable energy, people don't want to look at that kind of an emotion of eco-anxiety, because it kind of seems to go against this ethos of positivity and helpfulness. But we have to recognize it,” she said.

“Relatedness is something that continually gets ignored regarding coping with eco-anxiety. This is about relating to other people. Talk to other people about this,” she advised. “This is a normal healthy reaction that basically everyone is feeling, particularly if you're working in this area. We need to go there together.”

While eco-anxiety isn’t exactly a pleasant feeling, it can be used to drive us forward in seeking out solutions. Passmore pointed out there is in fact a positive link between eco-anxiety and pro-environmental action.

“In the middle of a crisis, we want people to feel a little bit anxious; we want people to wake up and recognize that we’re in a crisis,” she said. “It would be crazy not to be concerned with climate change.”

On a more positive side, connecting with nature itself has also led to increased environmental proactivity. In certain parts of the world, that notion has been acknowledged and incorporated systemically. Passmore pointed to work the British government is doing with academics to promote nature connectedness as an example of systemic movement towards change. She’d like to work with colleagues in the UK to bring those types of programs to Canada.

“It seems like this is some fluffy, 'Let's get people connected to nature!' But that's the biggest driver of pro-environmental behavior. That's the biggest predictor of pro-environmental behaviour,” she said.

She also advocated personal action, for instance through voting for ecologically responsible politicians and policies. “I do think that one of the ways we can help a system change is certainly by who we vote for. That's a very undervalued action that has enormous implications,” she said.

A large goal for Passmore with her presentation was to spread awareness of the effects of and remedies for eco-anxiety, beyond the pages of academic literature.

“This kind of information, it affects all of us and we're all human beings. If we just keep this within academia, that's being pretty full of ourselves, frankly, and it's not really helping that much. It's kind of helping, but not to the extent that we need these kinds of issues talked about,” she said.

Eco-anxiety appears here to stay, at least until the threat of climate change is diminished. In the meantime, at least we can talk our way through it together, and channel the fear toward finding lasting solutions.


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