Eco Anxiety and Guilt: The What and The How (to Manage)
Do you feel your chest tighten whenever you read about the earth’s temperature rising or sea ice melting or yet another natural disaster caused by climate change?
Do you feel a pang of guilt every time you have to buy something in single-use packaging at the store because there are no other options? Or when you see photos of animals dying because of human-caused actions? Or if you don’t have access to (insert zero waste option here)?
These feelings of anxiety and guilt surrounding environmental topics are not just a figure of your imagination – they are very real and can cause physical and mental symptoms and distress. Even more, there is a name for them: eco-anxiety and eco-guilt.
Related: I had the opportunity to talk about this topic on an episode of ‘The Sustainable Minimalists’. You can find that episode and more here. Or, check out my interiew on the Hopefully Sustainable Podcast on Spotify or Apple.
Eco anxiety and eco guilt definitions
Eco anxiety is: “chronic fear of environmental doom — the concern that increasing human development and pollution are leading us into an inevitable scourge of floods, famines, heat waves, species extinctions, and ultimately, the demise of our planet” (source).
Eco guilt is: “The feeling you get when you could have done something for the environment, but made the decision not to for whatever reason” (whether you had a choice in the matter or not) (source).
I am going to dive in to each of these eco’s and explain them in detail. At the end of the post, I have 10 ways that you can work through the eco anxiety and guilt so you can move forward in doing what you can.
But first, it’s important to know that if you suffer from eco-anxiety and/or eco-guilt, know that you are not alone. Don’t believe me?
Let’s dive in.
What is Eco – Anxiety?
As I mentioned above, if you find yourself anxious over environmental topics, you are not alone. In fact, according to one study done in 2018:
- “92% of Americans are worried about the future of our planet
- 72% of millennials aged 18-34 said that negative news stories about the environment impacts their emotional well-being (e.g., anxiety, racing thoughts, sleep problems, a feeling of uneasiness)
- 56% of those aged 35-44 agreed with the statement; and
- 57% of those aged 45-54 said the same”
Eco anxiety and kids
It’s not just adults that are feeling anxious over climate change. Research is showing that even children are showing symptoms of anxiety surrounding environmental topics. And why would they not? The younger generations are the ones who will have to deal with the effects of a changing climate.
“…four out of five of the 10- to 12-year-olds surveyed expressed strong feelings of fear, sadness and anger about environmental problems. A majority shared apocalyptic pessimism about the planet’s future.” (source)
And while the effects of eco-anxiety are challenging for adults to handle, the effects on children are potentially worse.
“Water or food scarcity, rising sea levels and extreme weather put children at higher risk of mental health consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and phobias, according to Burke. In turn, “eco-anxiety” can stunt a child’s ability to control emotions, acquire language or perform in school, which can cascade into further mental health issues in adulthood.” (source)
The history of eco-anxiety
Eco-anxiety is not a new topic – in fact, it has been around for over 10 years. However, due to glaring evidence that our climate is rapidly changing, the term has been becoming more mainstream.
It has become so common in fact, that the American Psychological Association has listed it as an official mental health condition.
Why now? You can blame our constant access to information, visual signs that climate change is affecting us (or already experiencing it firsthand), and evolutionary traits, for starters.
““In our modern society, we’ve built a series of challenges that are not immediately life-threatening, but that create the same anxiety that a wild beast leaping at you would have done thousands of years ago.” And because of information overflow, “everybody’s alarms are ringing all the time, but they’re not turning off.” All that ringing leaves us chronically anxious.” (source)
Eco-anxiety, Indiginous, BIPOC & communities
Even though the challenges we are facing aren’t immediate for many people, for others, the challenges have already arrived and affecting lives in a big way. It goes to be said that eco-anxiety doesn’t just affect people who are worried about the future of our planet. Eco-anxiety and other mental illnesses affect those who experience climate change firsthand through extreme weather conditions such as flooding, droughts, etc for example. We are already seeing these extremes in many parts of the United States and the world. And unfortunately, the effects are impacting low-income and BIPOC communities the most – communities that are least likely to contribute to climate change (due to lack of consumption). Loss of homes, communities, less access to food, clean water, and more can contribute to eco-anxiety in a big way.
As an example, “for indigenous communities, the loss of their homes as a result of climate change can mean a loss of tradition and cultural practices and identity.” (source).
Another example can be found by looking at Hurricane Katrina (which affected a large number of low income communities and BIPOC). “Following natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, 49 percent of people developed an anxiety or mood disorder” (source) due to the obvious (loss of homes, communities, lack of access to food, clean water, etc).
And the potential for anxiety doesn’t just stop there. Dealing with local, national, and intentional governments who don’t seem to take these issues seriously, to large corporations who contribute to the majority of the waste and emissions of the planet, it can easily seem overwhelming and anxiety-filled – especially when we feel like there is no hope or that nothing is going to change.
“Our perceived threat level from the environment is only increasing, while very little mitigation has been undertaken by our governments. It can leave individuals feeling helpless.” (source)
What is Eco Guilt?
Feel guilty about that rotten food you had to compost/throw away? Feel guilty for not having a recycling program in your neighborhood and you can’t make it to the recycling facility due to work, so you have to throw all your recycling in the trash? If so, you’re not alone.
In fact, “nearly ⅓ of Americans experience eco-guilt” (source).
As with eco anxiety, our exposure to constant media and news surrounding the state of our environment can quickly turned from being informed to overwhelming. And that overwhelming feeling can quickly turn into guilt, which we carry with us on a day to day, activity to activity basis.
Eco guilt can occur from choosing not to do something, or it can come from not being able to do something based on factors out of your control. But here is where the difference lies:
If you are experiencing eco-guilt but can do something about it (donate to an environmental organization, step up your waste reduction efforts, etc), you can use that guilt to motivate you (see more below’).
If you are experience eco-guilt but can’t do something about it due to a lack of resources (whatever that may be), that guilt can lead to shame – which is incredibly damaging because it moves the emotion from feeling bad about our actions to feeling bad about ourselves as an individual – or it can lead to even more eco-anxiety.
In fact, many of the populations that aren’t able to ‘step up’ and help fight climate change due to a lack of resources are the populations that not only contributed the LEAST to climate change (due to less consumption), they are also the populations that are being the most affected by climate change. They are also the populations that likely already do a lot of ‘eco-friendly’ habits not by choice, but out of necessity.
That topic in itself is a whole other blog post, but if you’re interested in learning more about this, here is a great resource.
The bottom line is this: if you are able to use your guilt as a motivator to make a change in your life, you are lucky and should definitely take action. There are people who are experiencing this guilt and not able to make a change due to a lack of resources, but who would love to because they are already feeling the effects of climate change.
Motivated to make a change?
Here are 10 things you can do to help combat eco anxiety and eco guilt:
Live in the now
Like with general anxiety, mindfulness is a great tool to use when you’re feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed with fear or guilt. Take a look at your current situation – where you are at a particular moment. Notice your physical surroundings. Take a few deep breaths.
Anxiety loves to thrive in the past and the future – so by focusing on the present moment, you can give your mind a rest.
Is there always something to be worried about? At this point in time, yes. But by constantly being overwhelmed and frozen with fear, you are not going to be able to do any good! Give yourself (and your mind) the break it needs in order to be the best version of you.
If nature helps you relax, you can check out my 2-minute self-guided mindfulness meditations with nature photography.
One of my favorite environmental activists is Jane Goodall. I have seen her speak twice in person, and she is as inspiring as you would expect her to be. This is a woman who gave up her career as a scientist to travel 300 days out of a year (at 85 years old, I might add) doing speaking engagements about the state of our environment today.
The most recent time I heard her speak was shortly after the 2016 presidential election. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the thing I was most looking forward to about her presentation was for her to tell us things were going to be OK.
And you know what? She didn’t. Because we are in a state where things aren’t going to be OK. At best, we can hope that we will limit the damage, but things ARE changing.
But you know what she did give?
She gave us hope. And that hope came through the hundreds of thousands of youth she has met and mentored through her organization called Roots and Shoots.
I left that talk full of hope – something I had been severely lacking.
And speaking of youth, can we talk about Greta Thunberg? The 16-year-old girl who solo protested her local government to try and bring awareness to the importance of climate change policy? And who inspired youth strikes ACROSS THE ENTIRE FREAKING GLOBE?!
As adults, we have failed today’s youth. I know that may be hard to hear, but it’s true. We have failed them. They are going to be the ones to clean up this mess; who have to deal with the effects and issues around the changing climate.
What we need to do, as adults, is to sit back, shut up, listen to these youth, and help support them in whatever way we can. Because they are our future. They are our hope.
We have to have hope, otherwise we’ll all just give up.
“There is a strong relationship between environmental optimism and young people who quell their fears and anxiety by engaging with climate change: reading about it, discussing it with loved ones or reducing their environmental impact. …worry can be something very positive. It does not need to be related to low wellbeing and helplessness.” “It’s not worry or hope; it’s both.” (source)
Have a plan
One of the biggest things I learned through years of therapy for my anxiety is to have a plan for whatever it was I am/was anxious about. This helped give me back a sense of control, and helped eliminate some of the unknowns.
The same can be said for dealing with anxiety around climate change.
“We take the ‘what-ifs’ and try to turn them into ‘then-whats,’ which helps patients get a little more goal-focused.” (source)
In my therapy sessions, I would write down something I was anxious about (the ‘what-ifs’) and then write down 1-2 ways that I could move forward (the then-what) IF the ‘what-if’ actually happened.
Never underestimate the power of taking back control over an anxious mind!
Take a break from the news
Having information and news at our fingertips can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse, especially if you’re dealing with anxiety and guilt.
Sometimes, stepping away from the constant stream of updates can be the best thing for our mental health.
I am not going to go into a ton of detail here, because I have an entire post on this topic called ‘8 Ways to Take a Break from the News and Still Stay Informed’.
Remember – if you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious and guilty all the time, you’re not going to be able to put as much energy and focus into actually making a difference. So do what is best for you!
Use your anxiety and guilt as a motivator and embrace
Sometimes, the feelings we get that are uncomfortable (such as the feelings around anxiety and guilt) can be the best motivators towards making a difference. Why? Because we don’t like to feel uncomfortable, and we will do whatever we possibly can to make that feeling go away.
When it comes to guilt:
“There’s nothing wrong with guilt. “It holds society together,” says David Amodio, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at New York University. “Without it, people wouldn’t be motivated to maintain social norms.” Even from a practical standpoint, it’s guilt that often drives us to change behaviors and take action” (source).
When it comes to anxiety, you can use it as a motivator, but sometimes it can be debilitating. In those cases, I have found that it is best to embrace the anxiety – which removes some of the power.
For example, if I’m feeling anxious about the future of the planet for my 3 year old son, I’ll say/write something like this:
“I am feeling anxious about what the earth is going to look like for my son. I am nervous that he is going to suffer. I am scared that he isn’t going to have access to food and water. That war is going to break out over these finite resources. I am scared that we aren’t going to do enough to protect them.”
I used to think that ‘giving in’ to my anxiety meant that I was losing – but in reality, I wasn’t fighting the anxiety and therefore wasn’t giving it any power. By acknowledging it, I was able to move from purely reacting to my thoughts, to being able to think through them and come up with a plan on how to move forward. It was surprisingly freeing.
Don’t try to do it all
Perfect is not achievable. We live with a linear economy – which simply means that things are manufactured to end up in the trash. We are working against an entire system, which is why it’s so important to make your voice heard in your community and beyond, AND, vote with your dollars.
In addition, be clear about the responsibility you are taking on. For instance:
“Make sure your standards are reasonable,” she advises. “We shouldn’t feel individually responsible for addressing problems caused by everyone, and in my view we shouldn’t feel we have to move to a lifestyle that is radically out of step with the rest of society. For example, in the U.S. today most of us have to drive, though we can probably drive less.” From there, you can move forward and do something while remembering you don’t have to do everything. (source)
If you try to do it all, you’re only setting yourself up for failure. Pick a handful of things that are most meaningful to you and work on those.
Find a environmental organization/community to be part of
In many of the resources I found while researching for this post, I read that getting involved on a larger scale was key to reducing your eco-anxiety and eco-guilt. Why? Because by getting involved in something bigger than yourself, you’re likely to see bigger change, which is more likely to motivate you. You’re also surrounded by like minded individuals who you can share your concerns with.
I found this great point in this article:
“You can also use your guilt as an indicator of how others around you feel. If something is difficult for you to manage as an eco-conscious person, chances are it’s hard for others, too. So why not try to change it from the ground up? “Work to enact political change that will make a difference on a larger scale,” says Wolf. “Vote for candidates with strong environmental initiatives. Write letters and send emails, from complaints about your school district’s lack of recycling to petitions to the federal government. Get things off your chest and use your voice to feel empowered.”
Volunteermatch is a great resource to find organizations in your area to volunteer at or donate to.
You can also join my Facebook group called the Reduce, Reuse, Renew group to be part of a community of like minded people concerned about the environment and how they can make a difference in their own lives.
Vote with your dollars
Along with getting involved, voting with your money is another great way to show support for the environment and to companies that are making a mindful effort in how they’re making an impact. Whether you decide to invest in environmentally friendly organizations, or you start buying every day items from an environmentally friendly organization, money talks.
“You can take actions to protect the earth at home. But when you put your investment dollars behind environmentally responsible companies, you’re voting for the future you want to experience”. (source)
Do what you can
“84% of Americans take steps in their day-to-day life to address their worries about the planet” (source). 84%. That’s a lot of people, right? But you know that not everyone is out protesting at their state capital each and every day.
The point here is to do what you can, with the resources you have available, and let go of the rest. Easier said than done? Maybe. But having a peaceful mind is important if you want to be able to work to make a difference. And that means letting go of the things you can’t do, or let the fear paralyze you into submission, or constantly worrying about the future.
Maybe one day it’s remembering to bring your reusable mug to your local coffee shop. Maybe the next day it’s taking the bus instead of driving to work. The next day? Maybe you’re writing a letter to your favorite restaurant asking them what their sustainability plans are for their carry-out containers. And then maybe the next day you simply go outside and connect with nature to reset and connect.
Do what you can. Let go of the rest.
If all else fails and you find your guilt or anxiety starting to interfere with your daily activities, it might be time to find a therapist or psychologist to talk with. You can always start with someone in your local area, but if you want more resources, here are some good ones:
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Online Resources and Finding Help
- Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741 (US number) to be connected with a trained crisis counselor.
- Finally, this is a great page from ‘Everyday Help’ with a ton of resources for mental health assistance such as financial help for therapy and medications, support groups, etc.
Do you find that you suffer from eco anxiety and/or eco guilt? What tips do you have to help manage or work through those feelings?
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