The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’ in recent years prompts the critical question: Is this chronic fear of environmental doom necessary for climate action or an emotional burden with potentially harmful consequences?

As the drumbeat of climate-related disasters, deforestation and biodiversity loss reverberates through our daily lives, a profound sense of unease and despair is seeping into our collective consciousness.

‘Eco-anxiety’, as it has become known, is a form of anxiety characterised by a chronic fear of environmental doom and hopelessness.

While not a recognised condition, psychologists are increasingly encountering patients with the same set of anxious concerns. In 2019, Oxford Word of the Year shortlisted ‘eco-anxiety’, along with many other climate disaster-related phrases. This is when the concept of eco-anxiety fully entered the zeitgeist and it continues to be prevalent today.

The Motivating Power of Fear

Fear can ignite action in the face of a threat and cause drastic changes in behaviour. When bombarded with images of burning trees, floods and droughts, the eco-anxiety caused can catalyse important behavioural changes.

Emotional distress can lead people to seek out information and become more informed about climate issues. This heightened awareness can translate into more sustainable choices in daily life.

Fear can also drive individuals to become climate activists and advocates for change at more extreme levels. Even leading campaigners such as Greta Thunberg have cited eco-anxiety as a partial motivator for action.

“It’s a quite natural response, because, as you see, as the world is today, that no one seems to care about what’s happening; I think it’s only human to feel that way,” she said.

“When you take action, you also get a sense of meaning that something is happening. If you want to get rid of that anxiety, you can take action against it.”

Undeniably, eco-anxiety, particularly among young people, has played a crucial role in inspiring the rise of the climate movement, with activists and grassroots organisations working tirelessly to address the issue.

Many awareness campaigns aim to create a sense of urgency within the general public; however, urgency and fear can manifest into chronic eco-anxiety, which can have some detrimental consequences both personally and for the wider cause.

The emotional burden of eco-anxiety

Constant eco-anxiety takes a significant toll, which cannot be ignored, both on the individual and the wider community. It is essential to weigh these against the potential benefits of fear as a motivator for climate action.

Climate psychologist Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams discussed the detrimental effects of eco-anxiety in an episode of The Naked Scientists Podcast, Eco-anxiety: getting hot under the collar about climate change. 

Dr Kennedy-Williams explained that eco-anxiety can trigger ‘eco-paralysis’, characterised by extreme hopelessness and the belief that their actions are futile. The fear becomes debilitating and this is when Dr Kennedy-Williams starts to see people entering his practice for help. 

This paralysis is the opposite effect of the intention of climate activists who want to inspire change in people rather than stop all forms of action. The constant fear and anxiety can trigger psychological conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mood disorders and suicide. 

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Dr Kennedy-Williams added that another consequence is the existential crisis over whether or not to have children — not for the potential carbon footprint but for the effect that living on the planet might cause this future child. 

He explained that psychologists are grappling with how to help someone experiencing that type of dilemma. 

The existential crisis around children causes serious reproductive rights issues. As Dr Kennedy-Williams put it, “it is a fundamental human right to choose when to have children regardless of religion, sexuality and living situation.” He continued on to say that “one of the most frightening statistics is that 40% of young people are saying the climate crisis is likely affecting their decision to have kids in the future or not.”

Balancing fear and hope

Striking a balance between fear and hope may be the key to addressing the issue of extreme eco-anxiety. 

Effective climate communicators can constructively harness fear by presenting clear actions that individuals can take and emphasising that the situation is not hopeless.

Such actions might be small behavioural changes — recycling or saving energy, for example — that lead to lifestyle changes — properly insulating your home or investing in solar panels, perhaps. Advocating for political change and participating at a civic level might follow.

Providing resources for mental health support is one of the key ways to curb the adverse effects of eco-anxiety. Climate Psychologists is an organisation founded by Dr Kennedy-Williams and Megan Kennedy-Woodard to forge sustainable climate action through empowerment, therapy and education.  

Some argue that the severity of the climate crisis justifies the emotional distress it causes, as the consequences of inaction are potentially catastrophic. Others contend that a more balanced approach to climate communication, one that offers hope and empowerment alongside a sense of urgency, is more effective in the long run.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as individuals’ responses to eco-anxieties vary. Some people may feel motivated to take immediate action, while fear may paralyse others. 

Finding the balance between raising awareness and empowering individuals, communities and governments to take meaningful action is key to addressing the climate crisis without unnecessarily burdening individuals with excessive eco-anxiety. 

Ultimately, the worth of eco-anxiety is a matter of perspective, but the focus should be on constructive and actionable responses that mitigate the environmental challenges ahead.