The rise of eco-anxiety

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ECO-ANXIETY IS AFFECTING YOUNG PEOPLE AS THE REALITY OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS SETS IN, JULIA MASTROIANNI REPORTS

This is a feature piece from our Fun Issue, The Darkest Timeline. Life has become such a clusterfuck that it’s hard to tell the difference between reality and satire. This is a factual, reported piece that we put up alongside similar satire articles. Have fun reading!

G eorgia Koumantaros was at a party playing a twisted version of “Truth or Dare.” Amongst the participants were friends, acquaintances and none other than Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer. 

“Okay guys,” said the second-year University of Toronto environmental studies student to the crowd. “Do you actually care, in your embodied being, about climate change, about the environment, about what’s happening?”

Sitting in a haphazard circle in the living room, Koumantaros challenged Scheer, wanting him to admit how he really feels about the environment. That was when she came to a realization: as some weird defence mechanism, Koumantaros herself stopped caring about the urgent climate crisis a long time ago.  

“I was trying to relate to everyone else, I was trying to say, ‘Listen, I don’t care either, I checked out for a long time,’” Koumantaros says. “But in retrospect, looking back on it, it was me confessing this shame to Andrew Scheer that I had checked out, even though I shouldn’t have, for so long.”

Or at least, that’s the way Koumantaros interpreted it after waking up from her dream—shaken and frustrated by this latest addition to a recent slew of climate crisis-related nightmares. She says in her conscious life, she’s been able to keep from panicking about the crisis. “But in my dreams, it all comes apart,” she says.

Koumantaros’ dreams are an example of so-called “eco-anxiety.” The condition is affecting youth in particular as the reality of the environmental crisis starts to set in. Described as a chronic concern or even psychological disorder plaguing individuals who worry about climate change, eco-anxiety reflects just how complex the effects of the crisis are. According to a 2019 research paper for the Climate Institute, individuals are suffering from psychological effects never linked to the environment before.

Panic attacks, daily episodes of despair or grief and increased levels of mental illness have been reported. If it wasn’t enough that humanity is teetering on the edge of irreversible levels of warming, the knowledge of that warming and its impending effects like food and water shortages, dangerous amounts of air pollution, coastal flooding and other extreme weather conditions is also taking a psychological toll. Eco-anxiety is particularly hard to cope with since there isn’t a lot of evidence to prove to someone experiencing it that things are getting better. 

M aya Shlayen has tried to be aware of what’s going on with the environment since she was a teenager. But the recent Ryerson journalism graduate says that a couple of years ago during the summer, she started to become severely emotional about what she was learning about the climate crisis—animals going extinct in particular. “This is going to sound melodramatic, but it felt like death. It felt like a loss, like a visceral loss that you could feel.” 

A 2018 study in the Global Environmental Change journal found that there are three types of environmental concerns. Egoistic concern is worry about how environmental change impacts the individual, altruistic concern is about humanity in general and the future and biospheric concern is about plants, animals and nature. Researchers found that people with high levels of biospheric concern also had the highest levels of stress related to global climate change, as well as the highest reported signs of depression. 

One of the researchers on the study, University of Arizona science professor Sabrina Helm, suspects this has to do with how much the climate crisis has already affected nature and wildlife on a bigger picture scale. This ultimately means the danger of the crisis appears more pressing to those with biospheric concern. “So they have the most pronounced worry, because they already see it everywhere. We already talk about the extinction of species and know it’s happening,” Helm told UANews, news outlet for University of Arizona. 


“Our planet is headed for a mass destruction of the environment”

At the time of Shlayen’s extreme distress over the environment, she says she was also dealing with some personal issues. With the two occurring at the same time, she says her mental health suffered. “It affected my academic performance, and while I can’t say it was the environmental thing alone that did that, it was kind of a snowball effect.” 

Susan Clayton is a psychology professor at Wooster University in Ohio who has been reviewing literature related to the mental health impacts of the climate crisis and natural disasters on individuals. She says that while the research out there currently focuses on the mental health of survivors of natural disasters, she’s starting to see a pattern among others. “For some people, this level of worry might be rising to the level of a threat to mental health, and that it’s interfering with their ability to function, to be happy [and] to be stable,” she says. 

Clayton believes the uncertainty around what is going to happen to the earth and to humans could be a major source of this stress. “There’s a sense that something big is happening. It has the potential to fundamentally change something that I take for granted, which is the stability of the global ecosystem. But I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen. And I don’t know exactly who is going to be affected or where we’re going to see the changes.” 

F or Stephanie McNeil, a third-year environment and sustainability student at Ryerson, the looming threat of what those changes might be is something that follows her everyday at school. “Just hearing it every single day, every time I go to class, that our planet is headed for mass destruction for the environment, is such a burden on me mentally.”

McNeil says that she’s always thinking about the environmental effects of everything she does. “Like when I order coffee, it’s just there reminding me of the implications of how this coffee was made and shipped. And I can use a reusable cup, but even then I’m thinking about it, like, how was that reusable cup made?” she says. But she knows, while it’s great for her to make all these individual changes, there needs to be action from those with more power to make a difference. 

“It gets to a point where you feel like you can’t do anything because there’s too much to do.” 

Janet Swim, a psychology professor at Penn State University, co-authored a 2011 American Psychologist study on coping with eco-anxiety. In a 2019 interview with CNN, Swim said this response of anxiety is normal when people are dealing with an “anti-goal,” or a negative result, like the destruction of the planet. She said avoiding or disengaging from the problem is a common reaction for those with anxiety. 

Koumantaros knows how overwhelming it can be if she thinks too much about what could happen in the future, and understands the impulse to freeze up or give up on doing anything. Koumantaros has combatted this feeling of futility by getting as involved as she can in groups petitioning for change and staging protests to get the attention of governments. “There’s not really a case for not doing anything, right? There’s a reason why you have this sense of shame or anxiety, and the facts are the facts and they’re only going to get scarier,” she says. “So you kind of just have to do something.” 

Koumantaros has been sending petitions and emails to the politicians in her riding and has also become involved in Extinction Rebellion, an international organization with the goal of encouraging governments to put forward environment-centred policies.

So far, Koumantaros says active involvement in the movement has worked to keep her from panicking too much about the crisis. “I’m also not trying to think too far ahead, because why go there if I don’t need to? I can try to just focus on the now, and what I can do now.”

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