A 2021 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health unveiled a distressing reality: the rapid acceleration of climate change is reshaping our environment and profoundly affecting our mental health and psychosocial well-being. The implications of eco-anxiety are far-reaching, as emotions such as emotional distress, anxiety, depression, bereavement, and even suicidal tendencies are being linked to the overwhelming challenges posed by climate change. This is especially true for young people as they navigate their life decisions in view of climate change and its unfolding consequences.
These findings have forced unprepared psychologists to grapple with the complex web of emotions triggered by climate change. On one hand, psychologists are trying to comprehend the emotions that we experience in response to ecological crises like climate change. Another group of researchers is studying the potential value these emotions might hold for our psychical, psychological, and moral well-being.
Through the lens of philosophy, emotion theory, and interdisciplinary environmental studies, researchers Charlie Kurth and Panu Pihkala tried to examine a broad range of studies to understand what has been called eco-anxiety. The paper was published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology. The paper contends that the term "eco-anxiety" might encompass a family of distinct but interrelated ecological emotions. Among these, a specific form termed "practical eco-anxiety" emerges as a particularly valuable emotional response to threats like climate change. Notably, when experienced at the right time and to an appropriate extent, practical eco-anxiety can not only reflect positively on an individual's moral character but also contribute to individual and planetary well-being.
The paper, titled “Eco-anxiety: What it is and why it matters”, opens with a crucial assertion: to comprehend the nature and value of eco-emotions better, it's imperative to acknowledge that different emotions serve varied functions. Researchers have categorized three functionally distinct groupings in relation to climate change:
- An anxiety-like response (nervous, afraid, and scared): an emotional response to uncertain ecological threats and dangers that engages a broadly defensive reaction (e.g., risk minimization and risk assessment efforts).
- A self-reflective response (ashamed, guilty): an emotional response concerned with having harmed something of ecological significance that brings tendencies to make amends for the damage done.
- A grief-oriented response (upset, distressed): an emotion-focused on the loss of what one sees as ecologically important and that can bring social withdrawal, mourning, etc.
Defining Practical anxiety
The researchers define practical anxiety as the unease that we experience in the face of a novel or challenging situation. This sense of discomfort plays a dual role. Firstly, it functions as an alarm that sensitizes us to the uncertainties and challenges of our circumstances. Secondly, it drives us to engage in efforts to minimize risks and gather information to tackle the issues at hand.
Thus, practical anxiety has been found to foster better decision-making and the motivation to follow through with those decisions. This stems from the reflection, deliberation, and information-seeking that practical anxiety brings, all directed at improving or resolving the situation.
Crucially, Kurth and Pihkala also distinguish practical anxiety from other forms of anxiety. Unlike social anxiety, which concerns itself with how others perceive us, practical anxiety focuses on what we should do. It initiates cognitive engagement and motivation that not only aids in addressing uncertainties. But, also brings about a better understanding of the choices ahead.
Value of Eco-anxiety
Eco-anxiety operates as an alarm, making us aware of situations, challenges, and decisions with respect to their ecological implications. It then triggers cognitive engagement and motivation to navigate these challenges. Thus, eco-anxiety has the potential to contribute positively to pro-environmental behaviors, agency, and personal and collective well-being.
The researchers also distinguish practical eco-anxiety from emotions like eco-grief, eco-guilt, and eco-anger. They point out that while eco-grief, eco-guilt, and eco-anger are backward-looking, and concerned with events that have already occurred, eco-anxiety is forward-looking. It addresses decisions and issues that are currently being faced or lie ahead in our future. This aspect makes eco-anxiety proactive rather than reactive, drawing individuals into engaging with ecological crises and prompting cognitive involvement to address them.
Eco-anxiety: A double-edged sword
However, researchers warn that eco-anxiety is much more complex and underexamined. While it does serve as a motivating force for some to get involved in environmental issues, it also carries the potential for stress and burnout. There’s mounting evidence to suggest that the complexity and enormity of the challenges brought about by ecological crises can result in unsettling anxiety, leading to feelings of alienation and hopelessness. The desire to evade this discomfort might even lead to disengagement or denial.
The delicate balance between its instrumental value and its potential negative impact underscores the importance of experiencing eco-anxiety at the right time and in the right manner. As humanity grapples with the climate crisis, understanding and harnessing the power of eco-anxiety might prove instrumental in guiding us toward a more sustainable and resilient future.
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