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Devastating weather can be accompanied by stormy emotions (Image: Getty Images/Archi Banal)

SocietyFebruary 7, 2023

Eco-anxiety is a normal response to disaster. Denial isn’t the answer

raining illustrated stormclouds surrounded by worried faces
Devastating weather can be accompanied by stormy emotions (Image: Getty Images/Archi Banal)

In a reality shaped by climate crisis, how do you think and feel about the changed present – and the changing future – without spiralling into despair?

In the midst of a flood there’s not much time to think about the future. But when the water recedes, the reality of a world transformed by human-caused climate crisis has an enduring psychological impact. The terms “eco-distress” or “eco-anxiety” are increasingly used to describe the influence of climate change on mental wellbeing.

Jackie Feather, a clinical psychologist and co-convener of the New Zealand Psychological Society’s Climate Psychology Taskforce, specialises in eco-distress. Returning to a bay in the Hauraki Gulf where she’s holidayed since she was a child and finding bare rock pools that once bustled with waving anemone tendrils and slender fish, she experienced eco-distress herself. “I sit in the bay and feel that sadness, watch a fisherman go out and feel angry they’re taking away more fish. Those are my emotions,” she says. 

When contemplating the reality of climate change, especially after direct experience of a natural disaster, Jackie says a number of emotions can come up. A sense of fear is a normal reaction; so is grief at what has been lost, whether that’s a home or just the expectation that the natural world is stable and dependable. Anger at yourself, government figures, or corporations is common, and so is a sense of helplessness, hopelessness or despair. These responses shouldn’t be discounted or ignored. “Feeling sad is a natural response to situations that cause pain,” she says. 

In response to these emotions, some will ignore the reality of climate change and try not to think about it, or experience a total and paralysing overwhelm. Jackie’s daughter Gabrielle Feather, now a PhD candidate studying eco-anxiety at the University of Tasmania, has experienced this. A decade ago, as an activist involved with Wilderness Society in Australia, she felt deeply worried about climate change, troubled by a sense that she could see the world changing while few people cared. “Sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed, or I would have a panic attack in the supermarket when I couldn’t find any food that wasn’t covered in plastic,” she says. This personal experience helped direct her to her course of study. 

a grey haired white woman and her taller honey blonde daughter with dappled green leaves in the background
Jackie and Gabrielle Feather both work in area of eco-anxiety (Image: Supplied)

Jackie says that treating ecological anxiety can be different to treating other sources of distress, as fear, grief and overwhelm are extremely reasonable reactions to the climate crisis. The planet has warmed 1.1 degrees since pre-industrial times, and is on track for 2.5 degrees of warming by 2100 – and that’s if countries stick to their Paris Agreement targets which by and large is not happening. Global heating intensifies the risks of natural disasters, biodiversity loss is occurring rapidly, and the most severe effects of sea level rise are already being felt by some of the world’s poorest people. “The world has changed,” says Jackie. “Stability is ebbing away and the future is unknown.”

Jackie uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to work with clients experiencing ecological distress. This is a three-part approach. In the first step, instead of ignoring or being overwhelmed by emotion, you sit with the reality of your feelings and acknowledge them. “It’s important just to be with your feelings,” Jackie says. This can be done alone, or with other people. 

The second step is about being present and mindful, aware of your body and surroundings. “A lot of anxiety is about future threats,” Jackie says. But most of the time, even if you have had your life or community threatened by a climate-related natural disaster, you are safe in this moment, and reminding yourself of that feeling can combat fear about things changing. The third step is what Jackie calls “doing what matters”: taking action against helplessness and regaining a sense of agency and connection with the world around you. Writing submissions to encourage local government to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change, getting involved with a group restoring a local wetland, volunteering with flood cleanup in your community, attending a protest – all these acts, big and small, help. 

In both her research and her personal life, Gabrielle has found that acting towards hope is about changing the narrative of climate crisis. Yes, there are many reasons to be worried. But telling a full story means including all the good, true stuff too. “There’s more recognition of indigenous people, more awareness of social inequities, more technological solutions and money to implement them – it’s a really powerful and exciting time to be alive,” she says. And when governments and corporations and economic systems are slow to respond, then it can be incredibly reassuring to take action on tangible things, like realising that a restored wetland helps absorb flood water. 

native bush green and dark and cool and inviting
Being present and attentive in natural environments can help with experiences of despair or hopelessness (Photo: Steve Shattuck)

The concept of eco-distress is sometimes critiqued as an experience of the privileged, an individualised response to an all-encompassing societal and ecological problem. In this telling, worrying about future climate disaster is the domain of the wealthy and anxious, cowering in comfortable homes while those without social privilege deal with calamity that is already happening. Both Feathers are familiar with this view, and acknowledge that there’s lots of research to be done on how eco-distress impacts people from different backgrounds. 

“There’s a difference between anxiety and acute distress,” notes Gabrielle. “For someone in acute distress, the priority is survival. Anxiety occurs when you have time to think, like ‘what’s happening now might happen in the future.” Clarifying between different terms and experiences is important: traumatic experiences during a climate-connected emergency can create psychological symptoms like flashbacks and hyper-vigilance, which is one way that climate change may exacerbate Aotearoa’s mental health crisis. But while connected, experiences of acute distress and trauma need different responses than more generalised, future focused eco-anxiety. 

While the climate crisis needs to be addressed at a societal level, it makes sense to focus on individuals when treating eco-anxiety, Gabrielle says. “You can’t speak to a society – you can only speak to individuals within it.” 

Changing how you talk about the climate can be a start, and using the language of denial isn’t helpful. For example, describing floods as freak, one-in-100-year events creates an idea that there is a norm of a stable climate to return to. Instead, Gabrielle prescribes courage. Talk about climate change as real and present; don’t expect the future to be like the past. Simultaneously, hold on to hope. “Focus on what you can change,” she says. “Look for the good news – have a vision of the future where the desire to rectify the climate has changed society.” It might not be possible to change international policy as an individual, but it’s certainly possible to act collectively, within your community, to focus on all that can be saved

If a sense of ecological distress feels incapacitating, Jackie says to ask for support from those around you, and reach out to your GP to describe what you’re experiencing. There are a number of resources that deal specifically with eco-distress; the newsletter Generation Dread is a good starting point, and Health Navigator has a page that lists symptoms and resources. 

For many people, appreciating the psychological impact of climate change is a new idea. I ask Gabrielle and Jackie for ways to begin the conversation with those around you. “Eco-anxiety is debilitating when there’s a lack of self-compassion,” says Gabrielle. Accepting that you’re not perfect, and that you can’t and won’t solve the climate crisis by yourself, helps things to feel less paralysing. Then, Jackie says, don’t experience your feelings by yourself: tell the people around you what you’re worried about, what you’re hopeful for, and what tangible things you’re experiencing around you, and be willing to listen to their responses too. 

In the wake of a big disaster, and all the small and large emergencies to come, it can start with something as simple as “how are you feeling,” Jackie says. “Yes,” agrees Gabrielle, smiling across at her mum. “Just ask: how are you?”

More mental health and wellbeing tools and resources can be found at the Ministry of Health website and the Mental Health Foundation. Please reach out to neighbours, whānau, friends, iwi and hapū if you need support.

Keep going!