‘Eco-anxiety’ on rise as people fear for planet

Climate-change warnings causing many to worry about environment


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For Jessica Swan, it was a dire warning about climate change that finally pushed her over the edge.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/02/2019 (1567 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For Jessica Swan, it was a dire warning about climate change that finally pushed her over the edge.

“That report put a timeline right in front of me and I went into a full panic attack,” Swan said. “It literally knocked me to the ground. I was sweating, I had heart palpitations — it was a full-blown panic episode.”

Swan is referring to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) document released last October warning that within as little as 12 years, incidents such as catastrophic storms and floods could become more prevalent and more powerful because of global warming and rising global emissions.

Jessica Swan had a week-long anxiety attack after the IPCC climate change report came up last year and had to seek treatment. (Mikaela MacKenzie photos / Winnipeg Free Press)

“We have been told for years that the world was changing and that we needed to watch what we were doing, but I don’t think I really took it seriously or really thought it was something that would affect us in our lifetime until I saw the news about the IPCC report,” Swan said.

For the 31-year-old Swan, the anxiety about climate change didn’t simply come and go; her panic episode lasted for more than a week and kept her from even leaving her Dugald-area home.

The episode landed Swan in an emergency room and eventually in the mental-health crisis centre at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre.

“I showed up at the crisis centre, and I was an absolute mess,” she said. “I was wrapped in a blanket and I hadn’t slept for more than three hours at a time for more than week.

“I’d barely ate or drank anything in a week — I was a mess.”

It was when Swan began talking to crisis workers at the centre that she realized she was not alone in her extreme concerns about the state of the planet.

“They were amazing, they listened to my concerns and what struck me is this didn’t seem to be strange to them,” Swan said. “I didn’t know this was affecting other people, I just thought I was the crazy one.

“Then, I learned that others were dealing with the same fears and having the same responses.”

Swan soon discovered she was dealing with what clinical psychologists are now starting to refer to as eco-anxiety. Although eco-anxiety is not listed as an anxiety disorder unto itself, the amount of people dealing with anxiety over environmental issues is on the rise around the world.

According to a study done by the American Psychological Association, eco-anxiety can be split into two categories: people worrying excessively about impending natural disasters, or on a larger scale, people dealing with feelings of extreme anxiety because of the state of climate change and our planet as a whole.

“Some people express very high levels of stress relating to climate change and even report panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite and even insomnia because of their concerns about climate change,” according to the study.

Through treatment, Swan said her issues have subsided over the months to the point where anxiety over the environment no longer causes disruptions in her personal and professional life.

One step Swan has taken to prevent eco-anxiety from flaring up is doing what she can to prevent climate change at a personal level — she has adopted a zero-waste lifestyle where her family consciously works to make sure it throws out as little waste as possible.

“I know I can control what I can control, and having that control over my own behaviours has made a big difference,” she said.

Seeing news stories and warnings about climate change can cause many to feel anxious about the environment, but Winnipegger Lindsey Brown said it is what she has seen first-hand that has led to her dealing with eco-anxiety.

“A few years ago, when I was teaching full time, I would get really anxious and concerned about the amount of waste at the school,” the 32-year-old said. “It was insane, the amount of junk going into the garbage every single day.”

Brown said that what often triggers anxiety in her is an inability to control other people’s behaviours.

“Working with students to educate and try new options is one easy way I can help make a difference, but attempting to help inform and encourage adults and parents to try new daily habits is a whole other struggle,” Brown said.

Following a crippling panic attack that sent her to Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre for counselling, Jessica Swan has reined in her eco-anxiety and is doing everything she can to better her family’s influence on the environment.

The anxiety Brown feels for the state of the world is also triggered when she is out shopping.

“When shopping, I have to give myself a lot of extra time to consciously pay attention to packaging. And, if I’m in a rush, it’s next to impossible for me to get through without a minor panic attack,” Brown said.

She said she does whatever she can to help prevent anxiety and panic attacks.

“I have done a lot of personal work in a variety of areas over the last few years to recognize that, ultimately, big or small, changes take time,” Brown said.

“I am conscious, aware and intentional, which is the best that I can do.”

Corey Mackenzie, clinical psychologist and University of Manitoba director of clinical training in the department of psychology, said he has seen a rise in those dealing with anxiety over environmental concerns.

“I have certainly seen in my practice, people that are anxious and depressed about the state of the world and specifically climate change,” Mackenzie said.

What can compound eco-anxiety in many is a feeling they have no control and no way to fix it, he added.

“We think of anxiety as a combination of estimation of threat and inability to cope with that threat, and there is a real sense among many that it is hard to have any real effect when it comes to these larger global issues.” Mackenzie said.

As new reports and studies about climate change continue to be released, Mackenzie said it is likely occurrences of eco-anxiety will rise.

“These are real and significant issues as people become more aware of what is going on, so it is likely we will see an uptick in anxiety about this,” Mackenzie said.

He said it is when people’s anxiety begins to have real and negative effects on their lives that they should consider seeking help.

“We tend to think of clinically significant anxiety as something that starts to impair daily functioning,” Mackenzie said.

“If it starts to interfere with work and relationships, it is time to go see someone about it.”


Updated on Saturday, February 16, 2019 2:21 PM CST: Age fixed.

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