For many Aussies, eco-anxiety almost seems like a foregone conclusion. Our regional communities, native bushland and wildlife are still suffering from the fallout of our ruinous 2019/2020 bushfire season and our fragile ecosystems continue to be sidelined for policies that purport to favour economics over ecology. The other nail in the climate coffin? Our defiantly dismissive Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Just this week, our PM waved away our collective distress by overlooking the importance of the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference by choosing to keep to the bare minimum of commitments instead of responding to the urgent call for action for the state of our planet. As recent studies reveal that Australians are three times more concerned about climate change than COVID-19, the fact that for many, a national disregard for climate-specific concerns is having a very widespread — and very real — impact is crystallised.
As cases of this thoroughly modern affliction grow globally, so too does the response, focus and support of the psychology industry. Clinical psychologist Dr. Patrick Kennedy-Williams and Climate Coaching Psychologist Megan Kennedy-Woodard, who run Climate Psychologists in Oxford, England, experienced a considerable enough increase in clients presenting with eco-anxiety that they began to incorporate climate-centric approaches in their treatment offerings.
“We began working on [climate anxiety] as it was really in its infancy of entering the popular lexicon,” which, Kennedy-Williams explains, was around 2019. “Our personal interest in the climate crisis meant that we wanted to have the biggest impact in supporting positive action.”
As modern psychology steps into a brave new world to service this rapidly expanding anguish, formality lags somewhat. Climate emotions are currently not pathologised and climate anxiety is not a formally diagnosable mental health problem, says Kennedy-Woodard. As the climate coaching psychologist points out, there’s also an additional layer of complexity to eco-anxiety that isn’t necessarily present in generalised anxiety disorders: world leaders that continue to uselessly slather short-term salves over communal concern in the form of hollow rhetoric, for one.
“The DSM–5 is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States and globally accepted as standard practice,” she explains. “It’s not been reviewed since 2013. It is possible that climate anxiety could be included in the future—this may be advantageous in terms of research growth and funding for support, but many of our clients feel they are not the ones with the mental health problem, but rather they are experiencing a normal response to the biggest threat humanity has faced. [It’s] the systems that perpetuate global warming that are unwell: people that deny the reality of climate change that are not responding appropriately.”
In a climate of global environmental gaslighting, it’s an ongoing challenge for those who have strong concerns to subsist within systems that deny the very source of one’s anxiety, hence the growing demand for specialised psychological support. Indeed, as Kennedy-Woodard adds, widespread apathy, particularly that which extends beyond the individual, is a common trigger for climate anxiety sufferers, especially when faced with ongoing instances of the climate crisis in action.
“Government and corporation inaction and people unable to engage or change their behaviour [are common concerns],” Kennedy-Woodard says. “Many are worried about their children’s future, whether or not to have children and what will happen if action isn’t taken now.”
For AJ Tennant, a Sydney-based copywriter who sought help for eco-anxiety in 2019, it was exactly this situation that sent him to a psychologist for support. “We were in our bushfire crisis,” he echoes. “I had quit my government job in disgust over the lack of action being taken to deal with the climate crisis. The IPCC report had recently come out and I realised we are not doing enough to [stave] off disaster for the world. I also had a newborn baby which suddenly put the long-term future of the planet in a glaring perspective for me. I found I would wake up at night with my heart racing and find it hard to fall asleep. I would start to catastrophise about the future and have to cut off my thoughts.”
The mantra of ‘anxiety to action’ is a key pillar in the treatment of patients who present with ‘climate emotions’ at Kennedy-Woodard’s practice. Helping to develop emotional resilience, self-compassion and self-care is a foundational step the partners employ and then, “really purposefully supporting them to engage with their goals and ambitions for combating climate change is what seems to be really protective.”
A similar approach is what ultimately helped Tennant, also.
“[I] began to focus more on what I could control,” he explains. “Thinking about my contribution to the world, to the movement, to the planet, instead of the overall outcome. I can’t solve climate change myself. I also realised a big part of my worries were around shame. I wanted to be able to look my son in the eye in years to come and say, ‘I really really tried to make this better’. And now I know I’m dedicated to this cause and working hard on it, and that I can be proud of.”
As long as the onus continues to rest with everyday Australians for action rather than government representatives or corporate entities, many might be asking what lies beyond recycling or a reusable cup in the face of Morrison’s foot-dragging approach. For Tennant, action alongside formalised, clinical solutions was a helpful combo.
“One big insight was that I wasn't allowing myself to work through my feelings. I would begin to catastrophise, my thoughts beginning to darken and then I would cut off those horrible ideas. I’d try to distract myself. I always left myself at the ‘peak’ of anxiety without any closure. So a large part of my treatment with [my psychologist] was working through some ACT [Acceptance and Commitment Therapy].”
Helpfully, the Australian Psychology Society recognises eco-anxiety as “the biggest health threat” of this century and as such, offers some assistance by way of the climate change empowerment handbook. Kennedy-Woodard suggests an additional step: padding yourself with the like-minded for scaffolded support.
“Our clients reiterate time and again that ‘finding your people’ is essential to mitigate the feeling that you and your actions don’t matter,” she explains. “Yes; governments have completely fallen down, but who props them up? The people do.
“Vote in your elections,” she urges. “Vote with your wallet. Write or call your representatives. Run for office. Get your peers talking about climate change, find your support networks and take community action. This helps remind us that we aren’t alone and that this isn’t solely on our shoulders to fix.”