I start each day by reading the news. Nope, that’s not a recommendation. Most of the time it’s filled with stress-inducing stories, like rising energy prices or Brexit backlogs. More tedious are the reports of drama within the royal family. Admittedly it’s not the most positive way to start the day, but it does keep me aware of what’s happening outside the Oxford student bubble. 

A recent demoralising headline states: ‘Biodiversity loss risk[s] ‘ecological meltdown’’. I read with despair how ‘The UK is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries – in the bottom 10% globally and last among the G7 group of nations’. Can you believe it? The UK, which is currently hosting the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, is one of the least biologically diverse nations in the entire world? Well. That was enough to send me into another spell of environmental gloom.

Apparently there’s a term for this intense fear of environmental disaster: ‘eco-anxiety’. The dismay of ecological destruction, climate change, and the accompanying consequences – like species extinction, water scarcity, increased extreme weather events, reduced food security, famine, war, mass displacement and migration, environmental refugees – all of this, and much, much more, can adversely affect a person’s mental health. This can manifest in symptoms such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, feelings of helplessness and fatalism, and reduced feelings of autonomy and control

Then there’s the heavy feeling of guilt before, during, and after buying a piece of fast fashion; or flying to Australia for a family holiday. Of course, this is a very privileged position to be in: how lucky that we can feel guilty rather than experiencing the terror of our home flooding due to rising sea levels. Climate change and ecological destruction does not affect all people equally. Likewise with eco-anxiety.

Eco-anxiety is not a diagnosable health condition in the UK – at least, not yet. Just last month, the British Medical Journal published an article about the disproportionate psychological impact it has on young people and children. To be honest, I often feel betrayed by the older generations. Yes, the devastating impacts of environmental damage are already visible, but the worst of it may not happen in their lifetime. Why should they bother? Many of them see no problems with the way we currently behave. 

Sometimes, I feel that my own generation has abandoned all efforts to protect and preserve the environment. Many seem ignorant – or worse, indifferent – to the scale of the environmental crisis we now face. Maybe it’s their coping mechanism. Sure, it’s way easier to ignore the facts than confront them, and eco-anxiety itself can be numbing – even stifling. But surely the environment is valuable enough to protect? David Attenborough (who better to consult for inspiration?) calls on us to ‘cherish the natural world, because you’re a part of it and you depend on it’. And in Lord of the Rings, (an equally authoritative source, I know) Merry Brandybuck’s response to Treebeard’s decision not to fight Saruman is one of disbelief: ‘But you’re part of this world! Aren’t you? You must help! Please! You must do something’. 

Yes, we must help; it’s our responsibility by virtue of being ‘part of this world’. But I didn’t set out to list all the behavioural changes we can make to reduce our contribution to ecological devastation. There are plenty of other articles, documentaries, and books you can consult. So many resources already explore meaningful, achievable actions we can take. Over time, I have used my despair as a driving force to make environmentally-conscious decisions. This has been the best antidote I have found to date for environmental gloom; my conscience rests a little easier knowing that I am at least trying.

But when eco-anxiety gets overwhelming, it can be hard to know what steps to take next. So here it is: my list of activities which can help ease eco-anxiety. I don’t claim it to be complete or life-changing, but it’s a start. 

  1. Get outside – There is something so grounding about taking time away from all the noisy headlines by going for a walk in an open, green space. Fresh air, sunshine (hopefully), and the sound of birdsong can help you reconnect with nature, widen your perspective, and bring a sense of calm. There are plenty of parks to explore in Oxford. My favourites include: Uni Parks, Christ Church Meadow, Port Meadow, South Park, and walking along the River Thames.
  2. Meditate – Don’t rule it out until you’ve tried it. I use Headspace, but there are plenty of videos on YouTube. It can really help you feel more at peace with yourself and the world around you. Eco-anxiety is very much rooted in the future, so meditating helps to bring you back to the present moment. 
  3. Focus on what you can control – It can be easy to feel helpless about the current state of our environment, but remember that you are not single-handedly responsible for causing or finding a solution for climate change. Focus instead on what you can do to make a difference, even if this is very small. Recognising that you cannot control other people’s behaviour helps to ease the anxiety of watching them make unsustainable choices. 
  4. Care for some house plants – Looking after plants can be a very therapeutic activity. Not only will plants make your room a greener, more pleasant space to live in, but they will also bring a sense of purpose and joy as they grow over time.
  5. Talk to someone – You are not alone. Eco-anxiety affects a lot of people, and sharing your concerns can be stress-relieving. Even better is finding a community of people who care about the environment and are keen to make a difference. A support system is invaluable, and we often gain hope, strength, and inspiration through others.

Eco-anxiety is primarily a reaction to climate change, a global problem which currently has no quick-fix solution. Learning to live with eco-anxiety is therefore important. Rather than seeing it as a condition in need of a cure, it can be helpful to remind yourself that eco-anxiety is a sign that you are aware of the damaged state of our planet, and that you are compassionate enough to care about its health. Whatever steps you take to minimise your ecological impact, and however you choose to reduce your carbon footprint, always remember that you have the power to bring positive change to this world.

Illustration by Tilly Binucci