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‘Climate Anxiety’ a worrying new mental health trend

Gen Z and millennials are increasingly being diagnosed with ‘climate anxiety’ – an impending and constant sense of doom regarding the state of the planet.

Climate news hasn’t been uplifting recently. Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the world has a mere handful of years to keep global warming in check lest we face widespread loss of life and irreversible damage. We live in a world where credible scientists are yelling from rooftops that if global temperature rise more than 1.5C by 2020 we’re all going to be underwater, and revered publications like National Geographic are tweeting things like ‘we have just ten years to save ourselves.’

The political strategy is panic, and it’s an effective one. While there are still climate change deniers in office, the only way to institutionalise meaningful change is if the next generation accept climate change as irrefutable fact.

However, climate panic is having some adverse consequences for the health of young people.

Psychotherapist Elizabeth Earnshaw reported to New Scientist that she sees an increasing number of young people who feel so overwhelmed and powerless at the state of the planet that they’re developing anxiety disorders. This is evidently contributing to the staggering figures of anxiety and poor mental health that Gen Z already has.

A constant pressure to make good choices in our daily lives leads to a perpetual state of stress and guilt that I’m sure many of us are familiar with. Earnshaw states that this despair typically leads either ‘to activism – protesting, advocating, and working towards change – or a more depressed, numb feeling of unease about how to engage in a way that might change or improve things.’

The first of these two groups are certainly making their presence known. The Extinction Rebellion organised a disruption protest in London this April, though whether they succeeded in drawing attention to climate change or merely to their own antics is debatable.

Additionally, members of the movement Birthstrike are so concerned about the planet’s future that they’ve pledged to have no children. For some people this has extended to voluntary vasectomies and tubal ligation.

Whilst anger can often be a disruptive emotion, with several arrests for destruction of public property being made at the Extinction Rebellion, it promotes a sense of control in the younger population. These activists are giving themselves an outlet. It’s those who sink into hopelessness that psychologists are more concerned about. Earnshaw further states that ‘for some people it [climate change] does create a sort of existential crisis of ‘what does this all mean’ or ‘it is even ethical to have children?’’.

The rub of the matter, though, is that Professors of climate change like Hayley Fowler of Newcastle University confirm that we have good reason for fretting. ‘We should believe the media hype. We need to be seriously concerned for ourselves and future generations.’

So, how do we think about the environment without being crushed by existential dread? Just like regular anxiety, there’s no set cure for climate anxiety. Above all, it’s important to feel like you’re contributing, however contributing doesn’t have to be a 27/4 task. A better future doesn’t need to involve a constant battle to deny yourself meat and dairy, and to shun all plastic packaging. Whilst these things undoubtedly help, even eating one less meaty meal a week can have an impact.

Or if you’re not a fan of incremental lifestyle changes and prefer a ‘go hard or go home’ approach, why not join the like of Greta Thunberg in lobbying banks, governments, and Trans-National Corporations to reduce their emissions?

It’s an unfortunate reality that anxiety can blossom from awareness. This is one of many battles climate change has given Gen Z, and it’s yet another one that we’re ready to face head on.