In recent days there have been images of extreme weather events around the world: while Spain was experiencing an intense heat wave, Greece was burning, and the UN issued a report that confirmed that the accelerating climate crisis affects all corners of the planet. The consequences of people’s actions and inaction in policies that prioritize caring for the environment are increasingly evident. Faced with these negative but realistic information, some people may feel overwhelmed and even develop anxiety. For this reason, environmental associations create networks of psychological care for their activists, and some experts speak of exchanging catastrophic and punitive messages for more motivational ones.
The UN climate report is an almost ignored red alert: “The world listens, but does not act enough”
“People began to talk about ‘eco-anxiety’ to define the set of emotions, such as sadness or helplessness, that generally cause environmental problems. It must be taken into account that it is an emotional response, which can be normal, although it can also be pathological “, explains the professor of Environmental Psychology at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) José Antonio Corraliza. In other words, it is understood that in the face of negative news of climate change, the reaction of some people may lead to some anxiety, but this does not have to be harmful: it can raise awareness and participate in the solution in a constructive way. The problem comes when this anxiety is paralyzed and destructive.
Although there are adaptive and maladaptive levels of anxiety, as Corraliza explains, considering these problems in individual mental health “should not distract attention from the social response, which is necessary to address climate change,” he points out in an article. of the magazine Anxiety Disorders l researcher Susan Clayton, one of the most cited voices on this topic. For his part, Juan Ignacio Aragonés, an environmental psychology expert from the Complutense University of Madrid, believes that human beings “must change their behavior and culture”, since there is a false sense that “technology will solve everything” But climate change “is a political and social problem.”
According to experts, one of the keys to dealing with these feelings may lie in going to collective action organizations. As the environmental psychologist of Extinction Rebellion Alberto Rico, “things can be done, although there are others that will not be in our power. There are studies that say that what works best for people to stop feeling ‘eco-anxiety’ is collective action. Get involved with the community of my neighborhood and have a feeling of belonging, of doing something “. In the same way, Miguel García, coordinator of the Greenpeace School of Activism, considers that this type of militancy “requires perseverance and effort but it also has to allow spaces to stop, identify our vulnerabilities and take care of each other”. Through this “reaffirmation in the community” and the “values that unite us”, a person who suffers these emotions can be strengthened “by counteracting the adverse effects of ‘eco-anxiety'”.
In the magazine Science a letter was published in 2019 entitled ‘Distressed environmental scientists need support. ‘ As Professor Corraliza pointed out, it is something similar to what happens with the toilets and the COVID-19 crisis: “You see what is inside and you feel a great sense of anguish, an emotional response that leads you to think that only you [los científicos medioambientales] you realize this. ”
“It is normally felt in the younger generations”
‘Eco-anxiety’ tends to appear especially in the younger generations, Alberto Rico points out, since precisely these age groups are the ones who tend to see the future in a negative way. This can also happen in children, who “are often aware of what is happening, and many are frightened”, indicates the psychologist, who considers that one should not “sugarcoat reality”, but listen to the little ones and “See what they need,” such as “if they tell you they are afraid and don’t want to talk about it,” Rico exemplifies.
This feeling of hopelessness for the uncertain future and concern for the global climate situation on the part of the youngest is the one transmitted by the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who at the age of 16 at the time closed in this way her speech delivered at the Forum Davos in 2019: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear that I feel every day. And then I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house were on fire. Because it is. ” Precisely in his book Our house is burning, the Thunberg family tells how the teenager fell into a severe depression and stopped eating after the impact of a documentary on the climate crisis.
But if a child becomes so involved with environmentalism that they feel fear, insecurity, and even anxiety, what can be done? According to Professor Corraliza, the key is to use positive psychology: “We change our behavior more out of positive feelings than out of fear. It is love, not fear of loss that makes us change. We have to pose the problem. [a los niños], but also say how important and valuable nature is. In children it is more important to promote experiences of positive contact with nature than to torture them with apocalyptic sermons “, says the professor in environmental psychology.
Along the same lines, Alberto Rico also suggests speaking positively and “thinking of actions that make the child feel that he is doing something to solve the problem.” In other words, proposing options such as “recycling, which although it has little impact, at least helps the child to channel that energy”, the same happens with some children’s documentaries to “also see the good things that are happening”. In short, that the child “feels that he is comfortable, that he does not generate that fear and sees that there is a possible way,” explains Rico.
Other related terms: from ‘ecofatiga’ to ‘solastalgia’
Professor Corraliza links this paralyzing ‘eco-anxiety’ with three other terms: ‘ecofatalism’, which is the “idea that the problem is big enough so that something can be done”, is generated by a passive attitude; the ‘ecofatiga’, suffered by people who are overwhelmed with the information they receive; and ‘ecosaturation’, the feeling of “not being able to do more”.
All these terms “act as barriers that block and prevent the person from getting involved” in environmental issues, according to the expert in environmental psychology. That is, there is a feeling of anguish, but being paralyzing, it causes the person who suffers it to fall into despair and end up without becoming environmentally conscious.
Corraliza also speaks of ‘ecological grief’ or ‘solastalgia’, which is “the pain caused by seeing the environment deteriorate.” In other words, a trauma generated by losing certain natural landscapes: “What I am is also the places I inhabit. And if that place deteriorates, what deteriorates is also a part of your identity,” concludes the expert in environmental psychology. .