When Sir David Attenborough joined Instagram in September, his account gained over 1 million followers in less than 5 hours and broke a world record in the process. His first video titled ‘Hello Instagram’ has now been viewed over 18 million times.
This overwhelming endeavour to engage with the 94-year-old naturalist and conservationist is testament to the sense of responsibility that young people feel for the planet. UK polls show that concern for the environment amongst young people is at an all-time high with nearly half of 18–24 year olds citing the environment as one of the nation’s top 3 most urgent issues.
But while breeding a younger generation with an appetite for climate action is a good thing for the planet, many people experience feelings of frustration, helplessness, and distress when contemplating the enormity of the environmental crisis before us. This is known as eco-anxiety.
This term is described by Psychology Today as “a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis.” Eco-anxiety is not a specific diagnosis but in 2017 it was acknowledged and described by the American Psychiatry Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” that impacts negatively on an individual’s mental health. Sufferers of eco-anxiety can experience symptoms such as acute stress and anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and obsessive thoughts triggered by negative information on climate change (e.g. extreme weather, pollution, human impact on wildlife).
Recent research estimates that “29% of Brits feel overwhelmed by the (climate) crisis, rising to 40% amongst younger people aged 16–24.” Some individuals report that the pandemic has made their eco-anxiety worse than ever as important conversations about climate change prompted by activists such as Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion seem to have grinded to a halt. Additionally, being isolated at home has left many of us feeling insignificant and incapable of actions that will have a tangible impact on the problems we face as a society.
An article by The Guardian has suggested that by constantly exposing readers to stories of environmental crises such as forest fires and melting of polar icecaps, this can trigger feelings of hopelessness which may actually hinder change. Many people will respond to these distressing images by changing their behaviour to minimise their own environmental impact, while others respond by burying their heads in the sand.
In a recent BBC interview, David Attenborough was asked if our actions as individuals are irrelevant when entire countries are ignoring the climate crisis. His response provides an important message on empowerment to take action: “if there’s only a fragment of hope, we have a responsibility to do something about it… we must all do what’s in our power.” In other words, no person is too small to have an impact.
What can I do to help reduce my eco-anxiety this winter?
Firstly, if you find yourself worrying about the environment it shows that you are informed on an important global issue and that you empathise with the situation. Research shows that increased empathy can predispose individuals to clinical anxiety.
However, chronic worrying can have a detrimental impact on mental wellbeing, and you should seek help if you are feeling overwhelmed. While anxiety is a complex issue with no quick fix, many sufferers of eco-anxiety feel that adopting eco-friendly lifestyle changes can help reduce feelings of powerlessness- my actions as an individual do matter.
During this pandemic there are many things you can do at home to reduce your environmental impact and to help you feel in control.
1. Don’t waste
This can apply to a myriad of different factors at home: reduce your food waste by planning meals in advance and only buying what you need. Invest in durable food storage containers as an alternative to single-use products such as foil and cling film. Turn off lights and electrical appliances when not in use. Consider that extra jumper before turning on the heating. Try keeping your showers under 4 minutes, fix any leaky taps or toilet flushes. Always make an effort to recycle.
2. Consider making changes to your diet
Buying local produce and fruit and vegetables that are in season can drastically reduce the carbon emissions associated with food transport. We all know that plant-based diets are better for the planet, but even if cutting out meat entirely is not for you, reducing your intake by adopting a ‘flexitarian-diet’ can still make a difference.
3. Make sustainable clothing choices
Curb your shopping addiction- go for quality over quantity. Repair or donate clothes rather than sending them to landfill. Wash your clothes at 30°C.
4. Spread the word about the changes you’ve made
There is no doubt that this pandemic has left many of us feeling out of touch with the world around us. But this is a time where the importance of individuals coming together as a collective to make a change is more important than ever.
Please follow these links for more information and support: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1NGvFrTqWChr03LrYlw2Hkk/information-and-support-mental-health https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/coronavirus-covid-19-anxiety-tips/ https://www.climatepsychologists.com/