Thursday, March 20, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: An Intelligent Response

by Sarah Anne Edwards, PhD, LCSW

Articles on what is being called “eco-anxiety” have begun appearing in periodicals of late, including in the New York Times (see links below) . The term “eco-anxiety” is being used to refer to the psychological response to a constellation of environmental events such as global warming, climate change, resource depletion, species extinction, and ecological degradation. Actually the term is a misnomer in that while granted most of the articles verge on the tongue in cheek, they nonetheless are placing such concerns in the realm of mental illness and thereby seriously misunderstanding what is occurring.

The term anxiety is commonly used to refer to a vague sense of undefined discomfort, while in psychiatric terms it refers to suffering from irrational fears out of proportion to the actual likelihood or impact of the feared events. By either definition, “eco-anxiety” would therefore be something best addressed by helping those suffering from it to define and calm their fears and concerns. But such a definition and approach could not be further from understanding the eco-concerns arising today or what needs to be done in response to them.

The effects of global warming, resource depletion, and other environmental crises are neither vague nor irrational.

Though most people may not yet fully recognize the connection, these events are directly related to the worsening economic and social pressures being felt by most Americans across the country, i.e. rising prices of staples like housing, food, utilities and transportation, accompanied with falling or stagnating wages and job opportunities. The jolt of recognizing the far-reaching economic implications of our environmental issues heightens the gravity of any heartfelt concerns we have about the perils of penguins and Polar bears and other species and brings them right into our households, thereby giving the term "eco" anxiety a double-edged meaning, a concern for both our ecological and our economic survival.

If a major tornado were heading toward one’s community, we would not say those who were concerned about it are suffering from tornado-anxiety. Nor would we prescribe daily meditation, a walk in the park, or joining a support group as the best ways to respond. While the danger from what is taking place ecologically and its impending economic fall-out is not descending upon us as instantaneously as a tornado might, feeling concerned about the seriousness of its current and worsening impact is a healthy, natural reaction to our growing consciousness of a real threat. It needs to be defined and treated as such.

Not only do these concerns arise from a foreseeable future of very real and disturbing economic and social consequences, they also will soon be generating a pandemic of personal, spiritual, and psychological crises. We as family, friends, and helping professionals need to be addressing them in our own lives and be ready to offer an intelligent and useful response to concerned others.

What Is An Intelligent Response?

First, we should NOT minimize, discount, distract or otherwise suggest palliatives to ease these concerns. The more society and those around us discount the reality of the consequences at hand, the more anxious we become and the more maladaptive our responses. Just as we would affirm that approaching tornadoes are real, dangerous and potentially destructive, we need to affirm the appropriateness of concerns about what’s happening to the global environment and the significant, disturbing implications that lie ahead, including that there may be dire consequences for some.

Then we need to accept that we, and those we hope to help, will have many unsettling and disturbing feelings about these implications, ranging from fear and grief to anger, confusion, disillusion and depression – all of which are perfectly natural and normal reactions. We may wish to deny, discount, and ignore these feelings, but that we must not do. We must not ignore the tornado or our concerns about it. Instead, we must acknowledge and work through our feelings so we can mobilize. In an article entitled The Waking-Up Syndrome, Linda Buzzell-Saltzman and I have described the stages of emotional responses one can expect when facing the breadth of effects from long-term ecological/economic crises. Most important to navigating through these stages is recognizing that they are not the same as the traditional grief process we are more familiar with.

First, what we must face is not one painful, discrete event or loss to which we much adapt. We are faced with an extended series of continual losses ranging from minor inconveniences to major upheavals most likely throughout the rest of our lifetimes. Second, such losses are not limited to just certain aspects of life. Nearly every aspect of our lives will be altered in some way by these changes, eroding the familiar constants that underlie our sense of security. In other words, metaphorically our emotional “blankies” are being snatched away.

Third, unlike with the loss of a loved one, a career, health or even impending loss of life, neither those around us nor society as a whole is yet particularly sympathetic, accepting, understanding or caring toward these concerns. Instead our pain may be denied, mocked, or ridiculed. Our concerns may simply be brushed aside as too much to concern oneself with. No one, for example, tells a grieving widow that her husband is not dead. Nor do we blame and accuse her for spreading negativity when she brings up her feelings of loss and all it complications. Such responses are all too customary, though, when one brings up concerns about the effects of global environmental change.

Finally, many of the things we commonly do to assuage painful losses will either not be helpful or available, particularly if friends and family won’t acknowledge that there is even a reason for them. For example, going shopping, one of the more popular ways we in America deal with unpleasant feelings, will ultimately only aggravate, not ameliorate our growing concerns. Nor will traveling, partying, or of course, turning to drugs, alcohol and other addictive substances. The tornado is still coming and we still know it, even if we want to deny it.

So we need to respect the psychological stages we can expect ourselves and others to go through and respond to them caringly in ways that will teach us about ourselves, where we and our culture fit into the forces that are at work, and what we need to do differently as individuals and communities to protect ourselves. Relevant books and documentaries on the topic such as the Resources listed here can be enlightening. They may also escalate our concerns, though, if not accompanied by talking with others or reading blogs and posts like those listed here where others can share and discuss what they're experiencing and doing.

The best measure of whether we're responding intelligently is to ask ourselves, "Does this help me or those I’m working with better understand what’s happening and how to make sensible choices that will move us out of paralzing emotions into empowering actions?" Using this question as a test, we can quickly discard many standard anxiety reducers that make us feel better for the moment only to leave us with the same concerns as soon as we return to our daily lives.

Ecotherapy and ecopsychology, for example, are often mentioned as an approach to help those suffering from “eco-anxiety.” They can be quite helpful when used as a way to learn directly from non-verbal nature experiences what has led to our current crises and how we could live differently. But they too will fall short if they become nothing more than a temporary outdoor escape from the very real challenges that underlie our concerns.

As with an approaching tornado, acknowledging and dealing with our feelings about the coming threat of environmental concerns and their ensuing economic upheaval is vital, but the best antidote for resolving them effectively is taking protective action.

Taking Action on the Personal Level

On a personal level we need to get busy doing what needs to be done to protect our future from the fallout we’re already experiencing and the rest that’s coming by creating as secure a situation for ourselves as we can. Just as those facing a tornado, we need to start immediately readying our house, so to speak, battening down the hatches and making sure we have a secure shelter handy. For example, we need to start one-by-one putting the following safeguards in place as quickly as we can, knowing, of course, that we can’t do them all at once and must start from where we are:

1. Secure a dependable income. That means having a locally-or-virtually-based career, preferably an independent one, in a trade or service that is resistant to off-shoring, not readily replaced by technology, easily bartered, and requiring as little travel or commuting as possible.

2. Get out of debt post haste and don’t acquire any more. We will need to apply every cent we’re now doling out in interest payments to making necessary changes and safeguards, be they paying the cost of re-training programs, relocating, retro-fitting, launching an independent career, or taking any other of the following steps.

3. Reduce our energy footprint. Scale down the size of our homes and high-maintenance, materialistic lifestyles to minimize the amount of electricity, gasoline, water, and other utilities and commodities we consume. This may involve taking lots of relatively simple steps like fixing breakfast at home instead eating out at the coffee shop or unplugging appliances that perpetually draw electricity even when not in use, as well as undertaking more sweeping changes like relocating, home-sharing, energy retro-fitting our homes, or getting off-grid.

4. Locate if possible in an area with a large and dependable naturally occurring, year-round source of water and as long a local growing season as possible, preferrably in small town, village or well-defined neighborhood with a positive, close-knit sense community. In the future localities will be drawing on their own natural resources and less able to afford to sell and transport their resources elsewhere. We will each need to depend more heavily on the local resources at hand.

5. Learn how to grow food. Since the growing and transport of food will be increasing labor- and cost-intensive, the more we can grow for ourselves in our own backyards, patios, decks and rooftops using natural, energy efficient methods like permaculture, the more secure we will be.

6. Learn how to fix things. As the cost of manufacturing and transporting products and parts made from petroleum and other natural resources rises, the more important it will become for us to personally repair, restore, and maintain what we now own.

Taking Action on the Community Level

1. Get active in or help form a relocalization, permaculture, or simplicity group in your area. People in communities like Portland, OR, Bellingham, WA, Willits, CA, and others across the country are actively working in such networks to protect and strengthen their local economies by making them more sustainable. Taking needed action in our personal lives is much easier with the support, ideas and camaraderie of others.

2. Choose one environmentally-related cause you feel strongly about and contribute whatever time and resources you can. There are many national and local organizations devoted to preserving the natural environment. They all need our help. We can’t possibly respond to them all, though, so this sometimes leaves us feeling helpless to make a difference. By choosing one to devote time and energy to, we are doing our part.

3. Elect officials at all levels of government who are aware of and have a desire and willingness to:

a) Initiate laws, policies and programs that will help individuals and local, national and global
communities respond intelligently to the changes taking place.
b) Create incentives to help individuals and communities make needed changes to reduce
consumption and increase sustainability.
c) Change laws that prevent and hinder individuals and communities from taking needed
steps to reduce consumption and increase sustainability.
d) When necessary pay for needed changes with tax on commerce that exacerbates and
accelerates environmental problems.

For more concrete examples of intelligent action that can carried out at the national
policy level and the consequences of not doing so, see “Five Stages of Collapse” by
Dmitri Olov.


As we become involved day-to-day in taking which ever of these steps we can at the time to safeguard and secure our future, the pent up energy generated from anxiety about the environment and what’s happening to our economy gets channeled instead into positive action. We’re busy, we’re engaged, we’re doing what we can, we’re involved with others who share and understand our concerns. Our feelings begin to shift from dis-ease to confidence and enthusiasm for the possibilities that lie ahead.

That's how I believe we can best respond both personally and professionally to the natural concerns that are becoming known as “eco-anxiety.” This is the first in a series of articles I will be writing on this topic and I am most interested in your thoughts and reactions, as well as learning of other resources you’re aware of that should be included here.

Samples of Recent Articles on Eco-Anxiety:

"Eco-anxiety replaces dishpan hands for 'green moms,'" International Herald Tribune, 2/15/08.
"Agonising over the icecap or frantic about floods?" You may be suffering from 'eco-anxiety," The Independent, 3/20/08.
"Well, Doctor, I Have a Recycling Problem," New York Times, 3/16/08.
"Green with Worry," San Francisco Magazine, 2/2008.
"For 'Eco-Moms' Saving the Earth Begins at Home," New York Times, 2/26/08.

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards 2008


  1. Sarah,
    I like your definition at the beginnig of your articles on this topic. I think we all suffer to some degree from the global events happening in our world. How could we not?
    No, it is not a mental illness, but a real fear. It is scary times that we live in.
    I greatly admire your work in helping people cope, in these trying times, and I support your call for healing and action by caring individuals and helping professionals. I for one am a caring individual.


  2. Thank you very much for your comments, BarbaraRae. I'm glad to know you are aware of and sympathetic to these issues and wanting to help. While it certainly isn't a mental illness to be concerned about these issues, they to pose challenges we've never had to deal with before,so there are going to be lots of people who will turn to their spiritual and mental health counselors to talk about and sort though their feelings and what they should do.
    Thanks for leaving your website too. Love the name! Perhaps we can stay in touch.

  3. Hi Sarah,

    I am excited to find your articles and perspectives on "eco-anxiety"! Along with teaching psyc at a university, I wrote a fictional novel (for the YA/adult market) of a nine year old child struggling with what now has this label. It will be published April 2009. As I work on cleaning up the manuscript, I'd like to add a chapter or two on the appropriate therapy for this child's problems. Do you or any of your readers have any experience with treating children with eco-anxiety? If so, I can be reached at and would very, very much appreciate your feedback (I portion of this novel is on my website Cheers, --Carla

  4. You wrote this a year ago.
    .. and it is more relevant than ever. Thank you for writing this, for helping others and for just putting it out there. I needed to read this right now to deal with all of the pain, fear and confusion that I am feeling. It really helped. Thank you and I hope you continue to reach out to those that can benefit from your wisdom and honesty.

    Mother and Coach, CA

  5. This is perhaps the most relevant article I have stumbled across! It puts so many of the thoughts/ feelings I have had in the past 7+ yrs into words, and holds much much clarity.

    Thank you for recognising the difference between losing-a-loved-one grief and what I've come to call earth-grief. Having lost my father 2 years ago... and becoming increasingly frustrated, angry and sorrowed over the current and state of the planet... it is so heartening to have the difference acknowledged, and sat with. By that, I mean not minimized or shrugged off, not put in the 'too hard' basket. It is indeed a relief to see that I'm not going crazy!

    I will keep reading your insights. Thank you so much.
    becca in adelaide

  6. Thank you, Becca. I am so glad you found this distinction helpful. I certainly have experienced it. Especially this last week. Our 14-year-old Toy Manchester Terrier passed away. He has literally been our constant companion for 14 years. He's traveled all across the country with us and been a member of our household nearly as long as our grown son was. His loss has been painful. But he will always live in our hearts and this pain will pass to be replaced with a mental and emotional scrapbook of joyful and loving memories. Meanwhile we have rescued an 8-year old Toy Manchester who is finding a new place in our hearts.
    The grief, however, for the gradual loss of the health of our planet is enduring and will most certainly not end in our lifetimes, nor are we left with joyful memories past or able to find comfort by another similar creature.

  7. excellent article, so nice to finally read one that doesn't ignore, deny or poke fun at these very real and valid feelings. it gives me hope that there are like-minded people out there like you and your readers. thank you!