As climate awareness increases, so does eco-anxiety

Increased awareness of climate change heightens anxiety related to the environment.
Increased awareness of climate change heightens anxiety related to the environment.


Related Topics:
Climate, Public Health, Science Communication, Storyfest 2024

More than 80% of young individuals experience some level of eco-anxiety, according to a recent study in Lancet. The study defined eco-anxiety as a type of anxiety caused by fear of environmental damage and found that increased awareness of climate change and exposure to environmental issues in news and on social media are heightening this form of anxiety.

For some young people, direct experience with climate related events is also feeding their anxiety. Naomi Boyd (they/she) is a student at Cornell University studying biological sciences with an environmental focus.

“The Canada wildfires were very stressful,” Boyd said. “When I was reading the news, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is bad.’” 

Naomi’s words highlight the challenges that many college students face when dealing with eco-anxiety. According to an article by The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, eco-anxiety can have a significant impact on one’s mental and physical health, often leading to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating. It can also make it difficult to socialize and enjoy activities.

Boyd is passionate about the environment and said they are worried about the state of the planet and the impact that climate change will have on future generations. The wildfires turned on a switch for Boyd and made them realize how serious the environmental crisis is. 

“I felt sad. It looked like the apocalypse or like the world was ending,” Boyd said. “I think that was a wakeup call for me because I could actually see it,” they added. 

Boyd said they worry about how their everyday activities might impact the planet.

“I think about how much power we consume. Even using a computer is not good because you need to get that energy from somewhere, and it’s probably not from a clean resource,” Boyd said.

Boyd’s worries are not unfounded. According to a study published in Science Direct, the United States is the world’s largest consumer of energy, accounting for nearly a quarter of global energy use. This consumption is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, which release harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. 

It will not go away by itself

The awareness of this reality is a significant source of eco-anxiety for many students. In fact, eco-anxiety is closely related to several negative emotions, including grief, guilt, anger, and despair, according to an article by researcher Panu Pihkala of the University of Helsinki. Another article by Cody Januszko of Carnegie Mellon University states that guilt can be generated and assigned through environmental discourse. This means that individuals might see the environmental damage caused by our consumption habits and feel a sense of guilt and responsibility. They know that their individual actions, while seemingly small, contribute to the larger problem.

Chawezi Ngoma (she/her), a licensed psychotherapist and an advocate for climate action, believes that eco-anxiety does not simply disappear entirely on its own. 

“It will not go away by itself. It’s something that’s often worked on in therapy,” Ngoma said. One thing that people struggling with eco-anxiety can do is understand what their triggers are and be prepared for these triggers before they occur. Unfortunately, not a lot of people realize they are experiencing eco-anxiety. Ngoma urges everyone to talk about eco-anxiety and raise awareness about environmental issues. “It’s important to start talking about it and treating it as something serious,” Ngoma said.

Boyd also believes that colleges could do more to support students who are struggling with eco-anxiety. They would like to see more talk sessions and advertising for help with this issue. “I don’t think there’s anything specifically for eco-anxiety here. Having talk sessions or a group of people who want to talk about it might be helpful,” Boyd said. They also think it would be helpful if professors and staff discussed eco-anxiety more openly. “I don’t think it’s ever directly addressed; I’ve never heard them say the word ‘eco-anxiety’ before,” Boyd said.

Boyd’s story is just one example of how eco-anxiety is affecting college students worldwide. As climate change becomes more evident, there is a growing recognition of the mental health toll that it is taking on people. There is a need for acknowledging the seriousness of eco-anxiety and taking steps to support those who are struggling with it.

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