Psychologists Warn of Climate Change "Ecoanxiety"

 

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A study sponsored by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica warns that climate change, including an expected increase in the global mean temperature, will cause increased "ecoanxiety" resulting in severe psychological and sociological consequences. The study, Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, led by College of Wooster psychologist Susan Clayton, warns that "we can expect a likely increase in mental health-related symptoms and conditions as a result of climate change."

Gradual changes in the environment are likely to cause substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression and individuals will experience fear, anger, and feelings of powerlessness, according to the study. In addition, "There is evidence that increases in mean temperature are associated with increased use of emergency mental health services...Higher temperatures seem to provide an additional source of stress that can overwhelm coping ability for people who are already psychologically fragile."

Communities at risk include those with high levels of poverty, lower education levels, large populations of older adults, children and infants, disabled people, recently arrived immigrants, migrants, or refugees, "all of whom tend to demand greater access to services that climate change can put at risk."

The researchers say that studies have demonstrated a "causal relationship between heat and aggression." Aggression rises as the temperature goes up, which has led a leading aggression researcher to predict an increase in violence associated with an increase in average temperatures. The study's authors concluded that "climactic changes often produce increases in interpersonal violence (such as domestic violence, assault, and rape)."

Adding to the misery, global warming is expected to contribute to an increase in mosquitoes, ticks, allergies, asthma and poison ivy, which will serve to increase global anxiety.

Not surprisingly, thinking about global warming too much can increase anxiety, according to the study. "Watching the slow and largely irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for self, children, and later generations may be an additional source of stress," the researchers found. They labeled the phenomenon 'ecoanxiety' and said people report "feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change."

One study found that people who were thinking about climate change became more hostile to those outside their social groups. "Hostility toward individuals outside of one’s social group can be a way of affirming one’s own group identity in the face of perceived threat," the researchers said.

The study suggests that the solution to the problem of 'ecoanxiety' is teaching people about the impacts of climate change in their own communities and helping them to learn about how they can prepare for the inevitable disasters. The study is fairly transparent about the end goal of diagnosing the psychological impact of climate change. "Thus, helping people understand climate’s impacts on human well-being, as this report aims to do, could be one way to increase people's willingness to take action in response to climate change," they say.

The researchers acknowledges that the media sometimes has a role in elevating anxiety about climate change. "The extent to which individuals recognize climate effects, or label them as part of climate change, is partially influenced by media representations and the people around them. Whether or not people attribute certain impacts to climate change will in turn influence the way in which they experience certain psychological effects. For example, anxiety about climate change and its possible future impacts is likely to occur only when people identify climate change as responsible for particular trends and events." They said members of the media should be careful not to associate every weather event with climate change, lest they cause unnecessary anxiety.

However, they do recommend talking about climate change more and about the feelings associated with it as a way to empower individuals. "Naming fears and other emotions and showing empathy for them can help dismantle paralyzing defense mechanisms." The researchers said that talking about being  anxious, depressed, or otherwise emotional is a normal response, "not something to fight against, ignore, downplay, or suppress." Discussing these feelings can help individuals process potentially overwhelming information, according to the study's authors.