Behavioral Health Brief: Exploring the Prevalence and Treatment of Eco-Anxiety
The climate crisis has arrived, and polar bears are not the only ones who are suffering. How can social workers help clients keep their cool in a warming world? It’s widely recognized that social workers abide by the person-in-environment approach, but conceptions of the environment often focus on the social, economic, and political environment without fully acknowledging the impact of the natural environment. Climate change is already having negative impacts on both the health1 and mental health2 of vulnerable populations across the globe, and social workers are increasingly responding to the call.3 Clinical social workers, in particular, are beginning to see increased emotional distress about the impacts of climate change.4 Media campaigns meant to inform and inspire action, like the 2006 Time Magazine cover featuring a polar bear on a melting iceberg and the caption “Be worried. Be very worried,” stoke fear among readers.5 With “climate emergency” being named the Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2019,6 and a record 4,290% increase in Google searches of “eco-anxiety” the same year,7 these issues are clearly gaining widespread attention.
What Is Eco-Anxiety?
On the other hand, eco-anxiety tends to look to the future with worry and concern about what is yet to come.10 Key components of eco-anxiety include worry about future generations, feeling disturbed, mental health symptoms, and helplessness/frustration.11 Eco-anxiety can be subclinical in nature or, in more serious cases, can reach “pathological” levels.12 The term “climate anxiety” is sometimes used to describe the same phenomenon,13 though this definition is narrower, referring specifically to worries about the climate crisis.14 Comparatively, eco-anxiety encapsulates nonclimate-related environmental issues such as environmental racism in the disposal of toxic waste.15
This is not only an American phenomenon; distress about the global environmental crisis has been documented internationally, including in Canada,24 Europe,25 Australia,26 the Pacific Islands,27 and Asia.28 Additionally, a systematic literature review found that mental health impacts of climate change, such as PTSD due to extreme weather events, were disproportionately found in vulnerable or historically marginalized populations such as older adults, children, and individuals experiencing homelessness, poverty, and substance use disorders.29 The evidence points to eco-anxiety being not only a focus of clinical attention but also a social justice and equity issue.
Cognitive interventions have proven useful in addressing the anxiety element.16 A small but growing base of therapeutic intervention tools can be used, such as a worksheet to map eco-grief.9 Another focus of clinical attention could be addressing moral injury—forgiving ourselves and others for contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.9 Scholars are also beginning to apply therapeutic modalities such as acceptance and commitment therapy,35 existential approaches,12 developing gratitude,2 and trauma work2 to target eco-anxiety specifically.
— Karen Magruder, LCSW-S, is an assistant professor of practice at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work and a Doctor of Social Work student at the University of Kentucky. She also manages a free social work education resources YouTube channel and a private practice providing therapy, clinical supervision, and tutoring for the Association of Social Work Boards licensing exams.
2. Schneider B. Taking the Heat: How Climate Change Is Affecting Your Mind, Body, and Spirit and What You Can Do About It. Simon and Schuster; 2022.
3. Dominelli L. Promoting environmental justice through green social work practice: a key challenge for practitioners and educators. Int Soc Work. 2014;57(4):338-345.
4. Magruder K, McMillin S. The Climate Crisis and Social Justice: An Overview for Social Workers. In: Forbes R, Smith K, eds. Ecosocial Work Practice. NASW Press; 2023.
5. Stoknes PE. What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action. Chelsea Green Publishing; 2015.
6. Duggal D. Oxford reveals Word of the Year 2019: here’s why we should be very, very concerned. The Economic Times. December 5, 2019. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/oxford-reveals-word-of-the-year-2019-heres-why-we-should-be-very-very-concerned/articleshow/72332446.cms?from=mdr
10. Coffey Y, Bhullar N, Durkin J, Islam MS, Usher K. Understanding eco-anxiety: a systematic scoping review of current literature and identified knowledge gaps. J Climate Change Health. 2021;3:100047.
11. Ágoston C, Csaba B, Nagy B, et al. Identifying types of eco-anxiety, eco-guilt, eco-grief, and eco-coping in a climate-sensitive population: a qualitative study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(4):2461.
12. Panu P. Anxiety and the ecological crisis: an analysis of eco-anxiety and climate anxiety. Sustainability. 2020;12(19):1-20.
13. Clayton S, Karazsia BT. Development and validation of a measure of climate change anxiety. J Environ Psychol. 2020;69:101434.
14. Hickman C. We need to (find a way to) talk about eco-anxiety. J Soc Work Pract. 2020;34(4):411-424.
15. Bullard RD, Mohai P, Saha R, Wright B. Toxic wastes and race at twenty: why race still matters after all of these years. Envtl L. 2008;38:371.
16. Hinde N. Eco-anxiety is on the rise. Here is what you need to know. Huffington Post. July 19, 2022. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/what-is-eco-anxiety-climate-change_uk_5d7f7c1ce4b03b5fc886cc16
17. Barnett B, Anand A. Climate anxiety and mental illness. Scientific American. October 10, 2020. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-anxiety-and-mental-illness/
18. Hogg TL, Stanley SK, O'Brien LV, Wilson MS, Watsford CR. The Hogg Eco-Anxiety Scale: development and validation of a multidimensional scale. Glob Environ Change. 2021;71:102391.
19. Wolf J, Salo R. Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink: climate change delusion. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2008;42(4):350.
20. Pearl M. Climate despair is making people give up on life. Vice. July 11, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en/article/j5w374/climate-despair-is-making-people-give-up-on-life
21. Jones MK, Wootton BM, Vaccaro LD, Menzies RG. The impact of climate change on obsessive compulsive checking concerns. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2012;46(3):265-270.
22. Hickman C, Marks E, Pihkala P, et al. Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. Lancet Planet Health. 2021;5(12):863-873.
23. Leiserowitz A, Maibach E, Rosenthal S, et al. Climate change in the American mind. Yale University and George Mason University. https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Climate-Change-American-Mind-December-2018.pdf. Published December 2018.
24. Durkalec A, Furgal C, Skinner MW, Sheldon T. Climate change influences on environment as a determinant of Indigenous health: relationships to place, sea ice, and health in an Inuit community. Soc Sci Med. 2015;136–137:17-26.
25. Haaland TN. Growing Up to a Disaster — How the Youth Conceptualize Life and Their Future in Anticipation of Climate Change [Master's thesis]. Norway: University of Stavanger; 2019.
26. The Australia Institute. Polling — climate change concern. https://australiainstitute.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Polling-January-2020-Climate-change-concern-and-attitude-Web.pdf. Published January 2020.
27. Gibson K, Haslam N, Kaplan I. Distressing encounters in the context of climate change: Idioms of distress, determinants, and responses to distress in Tuvalu. Transcult Psychiatry. 2019;56(4):667-696.
28. Hao F, Song L. Environmental concern in China: a multilevel analysis. Chin Sociol Rev. 2020;52(1):1-26.
29. Benevolenza MA, DeRigne L. The impact of climate change and natural disasters on vulnerable populations: a systematic review of literature. J Hum Behav Soc Environ. 2019;29(2):266-281.
30. Chandler CK. How family size shapes your carbon footprint. Yale Climate Connections website. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/03/how-family-size-shapes-your-carbon-footprint/. Published March 29, 2019.
31. Lawton G. I have eco-anxiety but that’s normal. New Sci. 2019;244(3251):22.
32. Hutchison ED. Dimensions of Human Behavior: Person and Environment. Sage Publications; 2018.
33. Grose A. A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: How to Protect the Planet and Your Mental Health. Watkins Media Limited; 2020.
34. Arcanjo M. Eco-Anxiety: Mental Health Impacts of Environmental Disasters and Climate Change. Climate Institute Publications; 2019.
35. Motisi M. Treating Youth with Eco-Anxiety: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Model [Doctoral dissertation]. Widener University; 2022.
36. Ecotherapy/nature therapy. GoodTherapy website. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/econature-therapy. Updated August 15, 2018.
37. Chalquist C. A look at the ecotherapy research evidence. Ecopsychol. 2009;1(2):64-74.
38. Upcoming climate café facilitation trainings. Climate Psychology Alliance website. https://www.climatepsychology.us/climate-cafes. Updated 2022.
39. 10 steps to personal resilience and empowerment in a chaotic climate. Good Grief Network website. https://www.goodgriefnetwork.org. Updated 2022.
40. From helplessness to action. Climate Journal Project website. https://www.theclimatejournalproject.com