Managing Eco-Anxiety 

by Emilee Musgrave

As record wildfires and floods harmed and displaced hundreds of Nova Scotians in 2023, the harsh reality of climate change settled upon many in our province. While this time allowed us to once again experience the resilience of our communities, witnessing the safety of so many become compromised due to a rapidly changing climate creates a sense of uncertainty for the future. Uncertainty and fear of the unknown are commonly associated with anxiety, and as a new practitioner it felt important for me to investigate how climate change may influence the mental health and well-being of Atlantic Canadians, and what can be done to manage this distress. What I learned is that not only is there already an awareness in the mental health industry of the impact of climate change on well-being, it has a name: eco-anxiety. 

What is Eco-Anxiety? 

Though It is not something that can be officially diagnosed, the American Psychological Association has defined eco-anxiety as “the chronic fear of environmental doom”. The severe language used in this definition may lead some to believe they are not experiencing eco-anxiety, but like other forms of anxiety, it can present in varying levels of intensity. 

The symptoms that manifest from eco-anxiety are not unique from other types of anxiety, however the context in which it arises is unique; our understanding and awareness of climate change has evolved from warnings that fell on deaf ears starting back in 1965 to now being acknowledged as a clear, tangible threat. According to the Canadian Climate Institute, three-out-of- four Canadians believe that climate change impacts their mental health and reasons for eco-anxiety appear to differ among the generations. For younger generations, eco-anxiety consists of a sense of helplessness stemming from an inability to influence climate change policies, increased negative perceptions of the future and a fear of natural disasters. For older generations, eco-anxiety can show up as a fear for young people in their lives , or can stem from the grief they experience witnessing the loss of natural habitats over their lifetime. It can also manifest from a sense of responsibility for the planet’s current condition.  

Managing eco-anxiety

One benefit of identifying climate change distress as eco-anxiety is that clinicians already have a wealth of tools  that can be adapted to support those experiencing it. The following are approaches Nova Scotians can take to manage the experience of eco-anxiety. 

One approach is to attempt a shift in perspective. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a well -known therapeutic modality that operates on the principle that it is not the event itself that causes distress, but our perception of it. This may lead some to argue that there is no “positive way” to look at climate change, which brings to light another principle within the theory: we are not looking for a positive way to view the issue, but rather a more productive, adaptive perspective. As noted earlier, much of the anxiety related to climate change stems from entertaining “what ifs” and imagining the worst possible outcomes, known as catastrophizing. These concerns are valid, but allowing them mental space in day- to- day life can become draining. A common approach to combating “what if” thoughts is to shift to a “then what” attitude. 

Anxiety is often rooted in an individual’s disbelief in their ability to cope with a situation, therefore shifting to a “then what” perspective allows one to focus on how what we can control and how to cope, and take action rather than sitting with uncertainty. As we here in Nova Scotia have already experienced some of the “what ifs” involved in eco-anxiety, determining a way to cope going forward can be beneficial to combating continued distress.

The potential role of electric vehicles 

One potential way we could do this is to consider the switch to electric vehicles (EV). By driving an EV, you are actively participating in environmentally-friendly behaviour and contributing to mitigating climate change by reducing your carbon footprint. Some may argue that it may not make a large difference overall, but for many, driving an EV and actively engaging in sustainable practices can instil a sense of purpose.

Driving an EV can further encourage the action needed to combat the feeling of helplessness experienced by those living with eco-anxiety as it provides the opportunity to promote sustainable practices, advocate for change, and connect with like minded individuals. The Electric Vehicle Association of Atlantic Canada is one of many organizations uniting those who care about contributing to change and providing access to over 3000 like-minded individuals hoping to see change happen. 

Managing eco-anxiety requires acknowledging its existence, employing effective coping strategies, and embracing initiatives such as transitioning to EVs. By taking proactive steps, individuals can address their anxiety while contributing to broader efforts to combat climate change.

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