Can therapy help cope with eco-anxiety?

Shannon Bryant is anxious about the dying environment but she is not sure if she should seek professional help.

Carrying an eco-friendly lunch bag in one hand and a reusable coffee mug in the other, Shannon walked into an empty classroom on a cold February evening. She had finished her work early at a second-hand fashion resale store and was on a visit to Sheridan College. 

Shannon settled her glasses and fixed her blonde hair as she sat on a chair, making herself comfortable for the interview. Her eyes looked tired and gloomy. Maybe, it was a long day at work or just another anxious day worrying about the dying world.

Dying world. Climate change. These two terms are interchangeable for Shannon now. She worries, or maybe, ‘over-worries’ about how unfit the planet Earth is becoming for the survival of humans and animals. She worries about how “short-sighted” people are and how they care about money and not the environment. She gets worried when someone at work insists on giving a plastic bag, or when the garbage is not dumped in the right bin, or to the bare minimum, when someone carries a disposable coffee cup. She feels anxious and unsteady. 

Shannon calls this feeling ‘unfixable anxiety’. Science calls it ‘eco-anxiety’ or solastalgia.

Eco-anxiety refers to the fear and helplessness one feels due to climate change and environmental damages. It has been defined as “a chronic fear of environment doom”  by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2017. Climate change has led to chronic stress in people, and it is growing at a faster pace amongst youth and children.

“If my therapist could fix the climate change, then I will not be anxious anymore but I guess that is not happening,” Shannon answered when asked if she ever considered going for counseling. 

She says eco-anxiety is not like other mental illnesses that can be worked upon. It is not a personal issue. Instead, it is a global and public issue that also has strong personal impacts.

Eco-therapist Eric Windhorst says that climate change-related anxiety is increasingly rising, especially amongst the young demographic. “Counseling can play an important role in coping with the nervous breakdown and from feeling overwhelmed but that is not the only solution,” he says.

Eric says that counseling can help cope but will not eliminate climate despair. “Therapy can help lessen the severity of symptoms, but because the problem is ongoing and increasing, therapy will not provide the solution to eco-anxiety. Systemic change is needed.”

“It began with small collective incidents”, Shannon recounts. She had no realization that she feels anxious about climate change until the age of 22. Things like general wastefulness in daily life had always affected her but not to an extreme extent. Now 25 and a student at Mohawk University, she says that her whole life changed after the hard realization. “I started using menstrual cups, stopped buying clothing first-hand, started eating a vegan diet and think about my actions every single day.”

Climate despair has affected Shannon’s life decisions. From her career to choosing her study program, everything now revolves around climate change. Not just professionally, but it has also impacted her personal choices in life.

“I don’t want to have kids”, she says. Shannon thinks it is morally not right to bring her kids to the world knowing they wouldn’t have a good environmental condition. “It’s a huge gamble! It is so much risk involved and there’s someone’s life at stake!”

Shannon has actively transformed her fears into actions, advocating for a cause and bringing changes to her own life. “Eco-anxiety was the main reason why I started bringing changes to my life. I am anxious because of this… I am contributing to it… therefore, I must stop!” 

However, she added that no matter how much she tries to bring a change in her life, she feels it is not enough. She panics about how little other people care about the cause. “I feel like shaking that person and saying, ‘Don’t you realize this is happening?’”

Eco-anxiety is as real as climate change and is affecting many young minds. It has given rise to a relentless uneasiness and many of the youth think there’s no solution out of it. 

Although serious, environmental anxiety has not been listed as a diagnosable mental health condition under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder. Eco-therapists are taking care of the growing mental disorder but many people are not aware or comfortable with the idea of asking for professional help.

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Written by
Ritika Dubey

Ritika Dubey is a journalism-New Media (PG) student at Sheridan College. An Indian journalist, she is passionate about reporting on environmental issues. Ritika has a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, with majors in the English language. She is a research scholar, digital illustrator, avid reader and traveller. She moved to Canada in August 2019 and currently lives in Oakville, Ontario.

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