This isn’t abstract for Alice. While she lived with hurricanes growing up, she feels that the climate change-related severity of storms such as 2017’s Hurricane Harvey is something new. She worries for her son and daughter-in-law, living in Houston.
She is far from alone.
The rise of eco-anxiety
Environmental concern is reasonable and desirable, but not if it’s paralysing. Recent years have seen growing awareness of the condition known as eco-anxiety, which the American Psychological Association has defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.
The concept has attracted some detractors, who criticise the pathologising of this kind of anxiety or its typical use in rich-country contexts. Yet, there’s a growing momentum in the psychology community behind recognising and finding solutions to eco-anxiety, both to assuage individual stress and to work toward environmental protection.
It’s well established that climate change affects psychological wellbeing in a number of ways. After all, those directly affected by a climate change-influenced disaster risk losing homes, livelihoods, and loved ones. Also psychologically distressing are constant uncertainty, worry and stress linked to the possibility of a natural disaster. Of course, pre-existing vulnerability – whether of disability, age, poverty, or other factors – worsens the likely severity of these things.
High temperatures have also been linked to suicides of farmers in India and Australia, and air pollution has been connected with increased suicide rates in north-east Asia.
Concern about environmental damage can affect wellbeing less directly, too. Secondary or vicarious trauma refers to the knock-on distress caused by feeling helpless when seeing others in distress. At the same time, hope about the future is associated with better psychological and physical health.