Eco-anxiety is a recently popularised term to describe the overwhelming powerlessness some people say they experience when they think about climate change. For parents, such fears can be particularly acute. BBC News speaks to some of those affected.
‘I couldn’t sleep and my appetite went’
Like many new parents, Heather Sarno takes her son Jack along to rattle, rhyme and roll sessions at her local library. However, she broke down at a recent class because of her fears about the future of the planet.
“I was asking one of the staff members if I could speak to some of the other mums about coming to an Extinction Rebellion strike,” says Heather, from Beeston in Nottinghamshire. “She said they wouldn’t be able to get involved in anything political and I got really, really upset. She said, ‘I think you need to go and see someone’. But a doctor isn’t going to prescribe me with what I want.”
The 32-year-old mum of one says she wants an end to the damage humanity is inflicting on the planet.
She says the fact her fears are grounded upon scientific fact sets her anxieties apart from other psychological conditions or the usual fears that afflict new parents about their offspring’s future. For starters, she says, there is no medical treatment for the eco-anxiety she is experiencing.
“A doctor wouldn’t be able to control the companies responsible for 70% of the world’s carbon emissions or put a stop to recreational flights,” she says. “Only this morning, I was crying about it. It’s like a grief process.”
Having a child has exacerbated Heather’s fears for the future. She says she only realised the impact of climate change after Jack’s birth.
“It was terrifying – for days, I couldn’t sleep. My appetite went. I cried loads. I felt really, really anxious and upset. I remember being really frantic and asking my husband, ‘did you know about this?’ I felt so guilty about having had Jack.”
So guilty did Heather feel, she has decided against having any more children.
“Jack is four months old. He’s absolutely lovely. He’s a dream baby, really,” she says. “I can look at him and just burst into tears because I want him to have a nice life. I could definitely cry all the time but I’ve kind of made peace with the fact that if we carry on the way we are, he will die because of the effects of climate change.
“That’s absolutely horrific but I have made peace with the fact that that is what will happen.”
Heather channels her energy into activities for Extinction Rebellion, the protest movement that campaigns on climate change, which she recently joined. She takes Jack along to the meetings and says she has no concerns he will find such activities overwhelming.
“The atmosphere is actually really chilled,” she says. “I don’t want to pass on my anxiety until he’s old enough to deal with it.”
What is eco-anxiety?
- The American Psychological Association describes eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. According to the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), a not-for-profit organisation that aims to help people with eco-anxiety, the condition manifests itself in a number of ways – grief, rage, depression and hopelessness. “It’s not a mental illness,” said Caroline Hickman, a teaching fellow at the University of Bath and CPA executive. “If anything, it’s a sign of good mental health because you are engaging with what’s going on.”
- The CPA says eco-anxiety has been around for decades. However, a “massive public awakening” on climate change has brought it more into focus. “I would confidently say there are thousands suffering with this,” Ms Hickman added.
- Although anyone can have the condition, according to Ms Hickman it is “particularly acute” in parents. “Parents, of course, feel guilt and grief for their children,” she said. “The parental instinct is to protect your children, and yet you can’t protect them from this.”
- “It’s a perfectly healthy response,” added Ms Hickman. “Really, the cure is about some counselling, some psychotherapy and coming together with other like-minded people. The feeling that you are not alone is incredibly powerful.”
‘You need to feel the fear’
Like Heather, fellow mum Lily Cameron, joined Extinction Rebellion a few weeks ago and says listening to speeches by the likes of teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg, makes her cry. She has an eight-year-old daughter, Jasmine, whom she takes to environmental gatherings.
“I don’t want her to become anxious,” she says. “For children, anxiety is more of a problem because they have so little control over their lives. Because of that, there are some things I wouldn’t say to her.”
The 31-year-old mum, also from Beeston, has not sought medical treatment for her environmental fears.
“If you went to the doctor about eco-anxiety they would probably tell you to distract your mind or take these medications,” she says. “It’s not appropriate in this case. You need to feel the fear.
“I wake in the middle of the night and can’t switch my brain off. I’ve always been quite eco-friendly but the anxiety has definitely got worse in the past few months. I’ve realised the things I’m doing are not going to be enough.
“The more you learn, the more fearful you feel but it’s important that fear galvanises you into action. If you just feel the fear, you will be completely overwhelmed by it and not do anything.”
‘You are not alone’
Mum-of-two Heidi Jeffree, 31, from Forest Fields in Nottingham, says she has spells of shakiness and a shortness of breath when she considers the future of the planet. She also recently joined Extinction Rebellion and says forming such alliances made her feel “powerful”.
“It shows you you are not alone,” says Heidi, who is mum to Cassie, four, and Finch, one. “That’s really helpful and calming.”
Unlike Heather and Lily, Heidi has previously suffered from anxiety. In her 20s, she received counselling and “various medications”.
“Therapy was massively helpful but I think anxiety is probably a facet of my personality,” she says. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing if you can manage it. And I can take the things I learned in therapy and apply them to this situation.
“For me personally, getting outside every day for fresh air and doing breathing exercises can help with the stress. It also helps to connect to other people.”
ARIES: You grew out of your old self and found a new one and this wasn’t part of the plan. Maybe it takes what you thought your future was and paints it in shades of blue. The color of depth. The color of stability. The color of the sky when you realized that you’re going to survive every mistake you’ve ever made, even the ones that brought you to your knees. Is it really so bad to look forward and see possibility rather than safety? Be comfortable with uncertainty. It will free you more than you realize.
TAURUS: What’s changed: your environment, or you? The passage of time has certainly taken a toll on your heart, kneading it between its fingers into something malleable and shapeless. But it’s impossible to ignore that the landscape of your body has gone through its own transformations as well, leaving you stuck in the middle of a battlefield. It isn’t too late for you to redefine your parameters, or find solitude in the aspects of your identity that confuse you. It’s not all supposed to make sense, yet.
GEMINI: Asking for help isn’t something you were ever taught and I know it’s something you struggle with from time to time. So on the nights you’re unable to formulate that question, the nights where you’re having trouble finding somewhere to rest, remember that passion will bring you home to yourself. Reignite the spark that once kept you motivated and put it next to your bed as a reminder of everything you will eventually accomplish. It’ll light the way for your voice when you feel ready to speak.
CANCER: Where do you keep your love? In your back pocket? In the bedroom? In the sound that your heart makes whenever they walk into the room? Sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint where exactly we hold our more precious emotions, but it’s more important than ever to recognize their origin. If you’re to move forward from the past, completely, then it’s necessary to understand why you exist and feel the way you do. Or, at least come to terms with the not knowing. Love will be tender if you are tender with it.
LEO: When does the self-imposed pressure end? When you’re drained of all energy? Breaking yourself to fit into an unhealthy routine? Life is not a set of deadlines that you have to follow in order to succeed, and you’ll drive yourself directly into a wall if you live your life by the calendar without any room for error or movement. Embrace your limits without judging their shapes. Your productivity does not have to be monumental in order to be relevant or good. Time will be there for you, there’s no reason to put it on a leash.
VIRGO: Say goodbye. Say goodbye in whatever way you know how. With a booming voice or a soft whisper. With every bone in your body quaking. Whether it’s a person, an era of your life, a place — you’ll know when the time comes. Don’t let this departure be a moment you replay over and over in your head until it’s unwatchable. You will regret not being honest about how you feel more than you’ll regret the consequences of your words. Don’t look in the rearview mirror. Nothing new is waiting behind you.
LIBRA: You’re sitting on a wealth of information and resources and creativity and beauty and when you forget to look down, you forget that it’s there. Commit this to memory: you have the power to give yourself everything you want. There are obstacles, of course, and there will be failures, but that’s to be expected with any journey. When you feel unsure and your confidence is wavering, look at your feet. Look at what has carried you so far already. Look at everything you’ve planted, sprouting up around you.
SCORPIO: Sacrificing your comfort in order to move forward isn’t actually moving forward. It’s draping a tablecloth over some scratches and calling it harmless decoration. You shouldn’t have to trade well-being for success, and if anybody ever makes you feel otherwise recognize that as a red flag. There is a universe where it’s possible to be happy and healthy and this is it, you’re living in it. Don’t be fooled by the bright lights and loud noises within your body. You are still creating a place where things can grow.
SAGITTARIUS: If joy is a part of you then let it be the biggest part. Let it consume the sections of you that were torn, ragged and bruised, let it burn away the memories you’d rather not remember. You don’t owe anything to those that left you for dead. Celebrating your life is now an act of rebellion, a song that deserves to be shouted into the darkness that once felt all-encompassing and numbing. So sing. Don’t feel that you need to mask your happiness. Being vocal about your triumphs is necessary, and good.
CAPRICORN: Where does work end and your happiness begin? And why do you so often confuse the two? The more time you spend sharpening yourself into a vehicle of labor is less time spent tapping into the part of your brain that enjoys being creative, spontaneous, and free. Don’t let the fear of falling behind stop you from cultivating your interests and spending time with people that adore you. Make time for yourself, and take care of your body.
AQUARIUS: Figuring out which direction is the right one has been a challenge lately. When there are so many things pulling you in a million different ways, every way you turn feels like a mistake. Like somebody is going to get hurt. Like you’re going to do something irreversible and embarrassing. You don’t need a compass to find your inner North. Trust your instincts whenever you find yourself at a crossroads. You know more than you think you do about making tough decisions.
PISCES: If you can embrace the person you were five years ago, why not the person you were five minutes ago? Despite the alterations you’ve made to yourself, from physical attributes to emotional development, your sense of identity has remained strong throughout your life. You, finally, know who you are…even on the days you aren’t quite sure of anything else. So be unapologetic during your periods of transition, and know you’ll blossom into somebody you’re proud to be. Have faith in your future selves.