“Fighting to improve the state of the planet left me drained of energy, not wanting to do anything, discouraged in my relationship with my partner, friends and family. I lived in a dystopia that wasn’t worth fighting for. Now, my psychologist will help me define those red lines in my mind so as not to become distressed.” Jesús Lucero is a 26-year-old engineer from Valencia, Spain, who detects oceanic oil spills with satellites. His concern about the climate crisis has disheartened him to the point that it is affecting his day-to-day life. Now, he has sought help in order to get better.
Global warming has had an impact on people’s mental health for years now, causing eco-anxiety, a disorder mostly suffered by those who are on the front lines of the fight against climate change: scientists, activists and environmental educators, but also children, who are more sensitive to the messages that warn about the harsh reality – that governments are not doing enough to stop the rise in temperatures, and that the damage is becoming increasingly evident.
Suffering from mental health problems is no longer a taboo. Today more and more people turn to psychologists in order to overcome the distress caused by the data on global warming, and eco-anxiety (also called solastalgia) is treated like any other condition. “For me it is a shadow, a constant worry. It’s been awful, I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t find motivation. Now it comes and goes, but I manage it with meditation. Among scientists, the issue is not openly discussed, but I do perceive more negativity and we have become more cynical as a coping mechanism,” says an expert who collects data on climate change and who asked to remain anonymous. “Every increase of a tenth of a degree means millions of people will suffer and species will become extinct,” she explains.
The pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the inflation are factors that have exacerbated anxiety; an adjustment disorder that causes insomnia, nervousness, eating disorders, muscle tension, cyclical thoughts, difficulty breathing and panic attacks, in extreme cases. “Anxiety has skyrocketed. I try to get patients to learn to live with it to minimize its effects,” says Anna Romeu, president of the emergency psychology section of the Official College of Catalonia, in Spain, who has treated eco-anxious patients.
“All of my family’s land was covered by water. I don’t suffer from eco-anxiety – which is a rational fear – but post-traumatic stress, after losing four cousins in the recent floods. That’s the kind of suffering we’re talking about. Where are we supposed to go when Earth is no longer a safe place? When climate change knocks on your door, you can’t deny it’s happening. You can’t run away from a hurricane,” said Pakistani climate activist Ayisha Siddiqa on a phone call from the climate summit held in November in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.
In Spain, Greenpeace has therapists available every day of the year to look after its employees, who are constantly bombarded by bad news but who also need a lot of energy to launch campaigns to force governments and multinationals to change course. For the past three years, a thousand activists have attended 30 workshops to empower themselves and receive emotional management guidelines and advice. The diagnosis is common: an endless work overload, a terrifying level of self-demand and the self-imposed feeling that they have a difficult task to fulfill. “This mission is so monumental that it becomes part of the problem, they feel an urgency to act and do it well, to have an impact, in the face of old political movements. They are people who have very little rest and at the same time keep a very ethereal struggle,” explains Pablo Chamorro, an environmentalist specializing in emotional management and director of these workshops.
Most of these activists are young, and before an immediate lack of results and government response they usually experience frustration and even guilt for not doing enough, burdening themselves with the responsibility for international inaction. The key to keep your head above water in the face of so much darkness is to share your feelings with your colleagues and connect with deeper emotions through reflection and meditation, in order to gain perspective and understand that individual action is enough and valuable. “Young people are in a permanent sprint, but this is a marathon. We can’t do it all. The obsession with their goal makes them forget about the person behind the goal,” explains Chamorro. Clinical psychologist Juan Cruz suggests selecting and rationing the news, in addition to taking conscious walks through nature to enter balanced environments and “focus on the here and now.”
The United Nations has been warning for some time about the way the climate crisis affects global health due to fossil fuels, but the impact on mental health still needs further evaluation. A year ago, an investigation by the journal The Lancet with 10,000 young people from 10 countries reported that 45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning; 83% thought that people have failed to take care of the planet.
What about the children?
Nuria Casanovas, a child psychologist from Girona, Spain, has spent a year treating 12 children affected by eco-anxiety. Minors receive a lot of information to recycle and care for the environment, but no resources to manage the anxiety and impotence caused by the fact that their actions are not stopping global warming, she explains. Luckily, after several sessions, their frustration decreases and they stick to the solutions they are given, thanks to their neural plasticity. “Many children are affected by the information they get from the media and their schools, but also by comments that we think are not being heard. You have to teach them that the world is like that, but to experience it without impotence, giving them breathing and feeling management techniques so they will develop self-control as soon as possible and thus develop emotional intelligence. The goal is to have a positive outlook and to be protected, emotionally, from future anxieties. The sooner this is encouraged, the sooner it will become part of their personality,” explains Casanovas, vice-president of the social intervention board of the College of Psychology of Catalonia.
Last summer, Katia Pirozhenko, a 25-year-old Russian international aid worker who lives in Valencia, Spain, went to the 1Planet4All project and changed her mindset after finding herself among 28 other young people who shared their feelings about the state of the planet: “They attack us for being Gen Z, and we are young people that grew up fearing the coming climate catastrophe. We are flesh and blood and we have concerns about the future that detach us from the present. It’s necessary to start an intergenerational dialogue to keep the children from feeling misunderstood by their prejudiced grandparents and avoid falling-outs within the family,” she warns.
Lucero concludes on a hopeful note: “We don’t only like to hug trees; we are also concerned about the world that we will leave to the next generations. Because I am part of the solution, and I have the energy to fight for climate justice.”