ENVIRONMENT

You're Probably Suffering From ‘Eco-Anxiety’

Are our brains even wired to grapple with an existential crisis like climate change?
Isabella Carapella/ HuffPost; Photos: Getty
Isabella Carapella/ HuffPost; Photos: Getty

What Will Be Lost is a series of reported stories and essays exploring the ways climate change is affecting our relationship to one another, to our sense of place, and to ourselves. 

It’s an unusually smog-free morning in Los Angeles, and Luke Massman-Johnson is standing on his roof with a squeegee, cleaning his solar panels to maximize their productivity.

A former creative designer, Massman-Johnson, 52, spent decades working with big clients like Disney and Mattel. When his son and daughter were in elementary school, he and a handful of other parents formed a “green committee” to help teach the kids about environmentalism. Over the next 15 years, it grew from a passion into an obsession: The more Massman-Johnson learned more about climate change, the more alarmed he became. 

“I had a sort of slow panic that just kept building, and I saw no end in sight,” he said.  “I just decided at some point that I couldn’t work on anything that wasn’t climate-focused, that wasn’t making a positive impact.”

He began declining jobs that required him to fly or drive. Then he turned down offers for major design projects because he felt corporate consumption was counter to his desperate desire to reduce his carbon footprint. In 2015, he left creative design and co-founded a gas-free landscaping company that enabled him to work from home and take advantage of his solar panels and composting system. 

Luke Massman-Johnson outside his Los Angeles home. Massman-Johnson gave up his career and radically changed his lifestyle bec
Luke Massman-Johnson outside his Los Angeles home. Massman-Johnson gave up his career and radically changed his lifestyle because of anxiety over climate change.

 

“I destroyed my career over this,” he said. “I gave up skiing and all sports I have to travel for. My friends and family don’t love me talking about it. So how is it that I’m doing the thing that feels right?”  

Massman-Johnson isn’t alone. Far from it. Support groups are popping up across the globe to help people cope with feelings of despair, stress and anxiety around a changing planet. The problem has become so widespread that there’s even a name for it now: solastalgia, or, more commonly, “eco-anxiety.” 

The climate is changing in rapid, worrisome and irreversible ways. Glaciers are melting, wildfires are burning, average sea levels have risen more than eight inches, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached levels not seen since before the last ice age. None of that is new. But the swelling tide of anxiety over it is driving some people to reconsider their entire lives. 

‘An Ever-Increasing Fear’ 

Andrew Bryant, a clinical therapist in Seattle, has built a practice around this burgeoning fear. He started a website, Climate and Mind, in 2016 to help bridge the gap between mental health and climate change. He says the concern only worsened as global warming made more headlines and extreme weather events started sweeping the globe.

“Climate change has gone from a theoretical future situation to a current experiential situation,” Bryant said. “That has been a shift. People now have a sense that we’re actually experiencing a situation that’s really dysfunctional and scary.” 

Part of the reason eco-anxiety is so overwhelming for people is that there is no framework for it, Bryant said. Where a person dealing with the loss of a loved one can expect to take time off of work and rely on the support of family, friends or religion, none of that exists for ecological grief. There are no seven stages; it’s not a process that can come to any sort of natural resolution.

“What truly separates this form of anxiety is the immensity of it,” Bryant said. “There’s no finality. Instead, we’re constantly subjected to new information that can re-trigger the grief, because there’s always more news about the environment or the planet that reminds us that it isn’t over, and that there’s worse to come. It’s an ever-increasing fear.” 

Smoke rises as a fires burn in the Amazon rainforest in this aerial photograph taken above the Candeias do Jamari region of P
Smoke rises as a fires burn in the Amazon rainforest in this aerial photograph taken above the Candeias do Jamari region of Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019.

 

Then there’s the deep, existential nature of the problem itself. Ecological grief is both so vast and so new that research has yet to catch up to it, Bryant said. But some people are already feeling overcome by hopelessness and fear. 

“There are people who are experiencing depression and difficulty engaging in day-to-day life because of this,” he said. “It can be as severe as feeling afraid that four or five years from now, there’s not going to be a functioning government because they just read an article about Greenland melting.” 

And it’s not just adults who are suffering. A recent American Psychological Association study named climate change as one of the three most stressful topics for Generation Z, following mass shootings and increasing suicide rates. A group of 11th graders at Hollywood High School described a combination of fear, grief and anger about climate.

Older generations, said Carla Villegas, 17, “could have prevented it, but nobody really did anything.”  

Violeta Torres, also 17, said her little sister has become concerned to the point of compulsion: “She watches a lot of videos about climate change on YouTube, then she goes through the house turning off all the light switches and recycling things. She’s 13.” 

It Feels Like We Are in the Apocalypse’

The term “eco-anxiety” first appeared in print in 1990, according to a Nexis search. It showed up once or twice a year until 2018, when it appeared 31 times. In 2019, the term appeared 863 times — a nearly 2,700% increase. 

Yet many people say they still feel isolated in their fears. On the neighborhood-based social media platform NextDoor, a post about the topic in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles last fall got nearly 300 concerned responses. 

 “Thank you for bringing this up,” one woman wrote. “I found out I was pregnant immediately after the latest UN Climate Report was published. Needless to say, I have so much anxiety.”   

“Climate change is very real for me,” wrote another commenter, whose home burned in one of California’s wildfires. “I feel very anxious about the situation we’re in, and I have a lot of sadness about the future for younger generations.” 

“I try to live my life as ‘normal’ as possible,” wrote another woman, “despite the fact that it feels like we are in the apocalypse.” 

An aerial view of homes destroyed by the Camp Fire on February 11, 2019 in Paradise, California. 
An aerial view of homes destroyed by the Camp Fire on February 11, 2019 in Paradise, California. 

 

While many reported stress and fear, others said what they’re feeling is more akin to sadness. Staggering scientific evidence points to a changing world — a world of extreme weather events, increasing habitat loss and an expanding list of critically endangered species — that is leaving many people grappling with a newfound sense of heartache and pain. 

For 25-year-old Season Marie Hayne of Victor, Idaho, the stress of this new reality was enough to compel her to join the Climate Anxiety Support Group on Facebook. The group, which was created in January 2019, has more than 900 members who share links to news items, climate reports and eco-related memes. Hayne said the constant conversation helps her feel less alone. 

“People are afraid that they’re going to be shunned for wanting to start a movement or promote such things, because they feel like they’re going to be one of the only people who wants to take responsible action,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s too far off to imagine people truly caring.”

But it’s hard to deny the impact eco-anxiety has had on Hayne’s life. When she became pregnant unexpectedly three years ago, she opted to have an abortion because she was “terrified to have children because of the future.” 

“It is a little sad,” she said.

‘Shared Traumatic Reality’

The growing number of support groups are evidence that people are eager to talk about their eco-anxiety. Jennifer Bulow, a therapist in Los Angeles, said she has seen an influx of clients seeking help for political and climate-related stress. She feels that stress, too.  

“There’s an acknowledgement of a shared experience between therapists and clients that feels relatively new,” she said. “It would be hard, as a therapist, to sit there and act like you weren’t affected by these things that are going on around you.”  

Bulow describes this feeling as a “shared traumatic reality.” Unlike other personal forms of depression or stress, the experience of eco-anxiety carries with it an inherent universality: Climate change is something that all humans live with, whether they acknowledge it or not. 

Bryant, the therapist from Seattle, said he sees this new reality as a potential turning point — a chance to come together and envision a different way of life. 

“I think it’s an inherently scary time to be alive if you’re paying attention,” he said. “But it’s also a moment for big changes to happen. This could be an opportunity to build a world that is more resilient, more healthy and more ecologically just.” 

For people like Massman-Johnson, though, that shift comes at a cost. He’s proud of his solar panels, his composting system, and of the eco-conscious values he’s passed on to his kids. But his son, Mikah, now 17, is struggling to find a balance between his family’s environmental priorities and his own personal goals.

“I can’t remember a time when global warming and climate change weren’t a part of my life,” he said. “But it’s a little daunting when you become an adult and suddenly it’s up to you.” 

Both father and son are grappling with the fact that Mikah wants to go to college on the East Coast. Dad worries about the air travel; he can’t even begin to calculate what would happen if his son were to study abroad or fall in love with someone from a different state or country.

“It would take our solar panels like 50 years to offset just his college flight experience,” Massman-Johnson said. “This is how climate fucks with your head, when you really think about it.”

Mikah, who wants to pursue a degree in filmmaking, is factoring all of it into his decision. 

“I want to have a very regular, authentic college experience,” he said, “but I don’t know if I could ever really pretend that I didn’t know what flying out would mean.”

Massman-Johnson wants what’s best for his son and for the environment, but it’s increasingly likely that he can’t have it both ways. 

“I know it’s sad,” he said, “but he had to promise me that he won’t fly home for Thanksgiving.” 

CONVERSATIONS