Eco-Anxiety: Taking Its Toll on Global Youth
A chronic fear of environmental doom has many worried about the impact of climate change on their future
By: Aila Ganić and Kayla Vondracek
A winter hurricane rips across a sleepy family ranch in western Nebraska. Ten calves die that night. Three more arrive half-frozen.
The next morning, the phone rings in a darkened apartment about 300 miles away, rousing a 19-year-old college student in Lincoln. Madison Imig listens in silence to the news: The horrific storm, called a bomb cyclone, has buried her family’s ranch in 14 inches of snow. In a bad year, they might lose 12 to 15 calves. Soon, it will be 100.
She can feel the dread, the panic setting in.
“In agriculture,” Imig said, “it’s not just watching your workplace flood – it’s watching your entire life flood. And that’s been really hard.”
The bomb cyclone, however, is not the only thing triggering her anxiety these days. Environmental disasters, rising sea levels and chronic water shortages have all become a part of her mental screensaver.
“It’s so sad. It’s just so brutally sad,” said the University of Nebraska-Lincoln junior English major. “It’s really sad to hear about people who are already disenfranchised by a systemic imbalance of power becoming more disenfranchised by climate change.”
A western Nebraska cattle ranch during a massive winter storm in March 2019. Video by Dave Malkoff
Day after day, week after week, the steady drum-beat of climate change issues – from melting ice caps to Australian infernos – is exacting a global mental health toll. And no one feels the heat more than young people. Fanning their fears and anxieties of an increasingly inhospitable environment is a vast sea of media – online videos, magazine photos, cable TV, lurid newspaper headlines and waves of social media – that wash over young news consumers 24/7.
In fact, psychologists have coined a phrase for these feelings of anxiety that Imig and many of her generation regularly face. They call it: “eco-anxiety.” The American Psychological Association defines this phenomenon affecting more and more of the world’s youth as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”
Eco-anxiety can develop in two major ways, according to Beth Doll, Ph.D., UNL educational psychology professor and interim dean. One way, she said, is through the acts of reading and hearing about climate change. The other way eco-anxiety presents itself is from first-hand experience with climate change impacts.
“There’s those frightening thoughts about the future, and I think that’s one piece to worry about,” Doll said. “But then we have the anxiety because we’re already experiencing events that are climate related, so our flooding in Nebraska is an example that literally wiped out homes and livelihoods for some kids.”
Both types of eco-anxiety can express themselves in a variety of ways, one of which involves a critical decision: whether or not to have children.
“My whole thing is, I can’t guarantee that in 20 years, there will be a world left for my kids,” Imig said. “And that is something that really freaks me out.”
Mary Pipher understands what the college junior is saying. No generation of young people has ever had to deal with this question so intensely, said Pipher, a Lincoln clinical psychologist and New York Times bestselling author.
More specifically, the ardent environmentalist also understands where those feelings come from. The sadness triggered by eco-anxiety, Pipher believes, starts at a very early age when children first become aware of the crisis.
“They have a deep sense of understanding that the world I’m inheriting is not the world the way it’s been since almost the beginning of time,” she said.
Liam Downes is one of those young adults acutely aware of a changing world. He cites the loss of native species as a chronic source of anxiety.
“If you’re losing these plants, species that nobody knows anything about them, now nobody will. You have lost a piece of history,” said the UNL natural resource economics major.
And there are a host of other issues both compounding and feeding into the eco-anxieties of today’s youth, according to a number of psychologists.
For one thing, they note, younger generations already are experiencing higher stress levels brought on by an increasingly competitive society.
And when you add climate change to the mix, it can have a debilitating effect on those already stressed-out for a variety of other reasons, according to Ananta Khatri, Psy.D., a psychology professor at Peru State College.
Adolescents already experiencing higher levels of competition and pressure around test scores and college admission feel the additional weight of an uncertain future, Khatri said. The whirlwind combination of these stressors creates an intense environment for young people to have to navigate.
“I view it (climate change) more as an additional stressor that can affect your mental health overall, simply because of the fact that we might be able to cope with a certain amount, but then you have more and more added to it,” Khatri said. “That’s when it becomes a problem.”
The reaction to those stressors, according to a number of psychologists, is deeply grounded in human nature.
Eco-anxiety as a response to climate change is on par with normal psychological functioning, according to Azar Abadi, Ph.D., a University of Nebraska Medical Center research assistant professor. When individuals think that something is threatening them or their loved ones’ lives, she said, the natural reaction is to be worried, especially with increased media coverage.
As for the steady drum-beat of global climate change disasters, Abadi is concerned that “we don’t hear from solutions as much as we hear about the problem. So that will cause more stress and more distress because it probably (makes us) feel more helpless in those situations.”
However, human nature or not, there remains an anxiety threshold that can be worrisome if breached.
“Excessive anxiety that stops you from moving forward,” said psychology professor Doll, “that doesn’t allow you to set it aside and still have moments of happiness in your life, that’s unusual and that’s problematic.”
That kind of excessive anxiety often has a common starting point: As media coverage of natural disasters and the impact of climate change expands, so too does the imprint it leaves behind on the viewer’s mind.
And that increased media coverage can have a very specific – and often detrimental – impact on younger people. Children, for example, may see a natural disaster covered on the news and think it’s occurring right in their own neighborhood because their brains are still developing. They can understand what the media are saying, but they do not have the life experience to form an accurate perception of the scope and timeline of an event.
“They don’t understand distance the way that we do. So, if something’s happening in California or New York, they don’t necessarily understand that it’s not in their area or not affecting them right away,” said Amy Napoli, Ph.D., a UNL childhood education extension specialist and professor of child, youth and family studies.
Khatri expands on this belief by noting that our frontal lobes, the part of the brain known for logical reasoning, develop up through our mid 20s, especially in males.
“If those (frontal lobes) are still developing, I can see how a younger person might see something in the media and then just take it, not really have that insight or not have as good of a judgment in terms of how it directly impacts them in the here and now,” Khatri said.
The inherent downside of a lot of media coverage, said UNMC’s Abadi, is that the problems noted are many while the solutions are few, making individuals feel helpless. And those media-induced feelings of helplessness feed into the more worrisome issue of eco-anxiety.
Despite the negative role media often play, a responsible intake of information can prove the media to be beneficial. It all depends on the kind of information individuals absorb.
Lincoln psychologist Pipher, for example, talks about a common strategy utilized in her environmental group, which is absorbing only “actionable information” – defined as information that is useful for solving a problem.
“We don’t have people come in and make reports about polar bears going extinct because there’s nothing in Nebraska we could do about that,” Pipher said.
“Mental Health and Our Changing Climate” — a March 2017 report by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health and ecoAmerica
There’s no doubt that responsible media use can be a positive experience, according to Holly Hatton-Bowers, Ph.D., a UNL childhood education extension specialist and professor of child, youth and family studies.
“I think you have to use social media responsibly,” said Hatton-Bowers. “It’s constantly bombarding with negative messages that adds to that hopelessness versus, ‘Look at what we’re doing,’ and promoting hope, along with awareness I think is important.”
Haley Nolde, a UNL senior environmental studies major, agreed. “Initially, I let social media scare tactics get to me. But now I choose to follow inspiration accounts full of hope and sustainability tactics,” Nolde said.
Additionally, media can be used to uphold social networks that are vital for psychological wellbeing. Doll, the UNL psychologist, said that these social networks are especially crucial during times of crises, such as when climate change consequences are felt.
Besides using media responsibly and strategically, professionals agree there also are various coping mechanisms to deal with feelings of eco-anxiety.
Many individuals, for example, alter their lifestyles to address climate change concerns. They recycle, drive less and reduce meat consumption. But lifestyle changes aren’t always attainable for young individuals subject to their guardians’ lifestyle. In that case, psychologists suggest, reaching out to school mental health resources is beneficial.
Doll also said that coping mechanisms used for general anxiety should not be ignored. She recommended practicing relaxation and mindfulness, creating moments of joy, expressing gratitude and performing acts of kindness as effective ways to try to control eco-anxiety.
And Lincoln psychologist Pipher offered another suggestion: organizing anxiety into something better – such as action, loving and collective sharing with others. One has to let themselves feel the pain, she said, in order to turn anxiety into action by being an informed citizen.
“Let (your heart) crack open and let the whole world rush in,” said Pipher. “Stop fighting that cracking open of your heart.”
Madison Imig doesn’t disagree with any of these suggestions, these thoughtful coping mechanisms.
It’s just that she’s developed a specialized one of her own, unique perhaps to the Nebraska cattle ranch 300 miles west of her college dorm room.
When the junior English major feels stressed out, when she feels the walls closing in, when she feels the tightness in her throat and chest, she knows exactly what to do: grab her phone and get lost in its lock screen.
Back on that horrible day when the bomb cyclone ripped through her ranch, her father found a half-frozen little calf buried in 14 inches of snow. He gently picked up the baby cow and put it in his heated pick-up truck.
When he came back hours later, unsure that it could have survived, he found it curled up in the front seat as though it was ready to go for a ride.
Michael Imig took a photo of that moment and sent it to his daughter.
Madison knew exactly what to do with it.