In an era marked by environmental challenges, the concept of eco-anxiety has emerged as an overwhelming toll on our hearts and minds.
Eco-Anxiety: The silent struggle
As people around the world grapple with environmental issues causing climate crisis, ranging from pollution, deforestation, forest fires and heat waves, there has emerged a profound sense of worry and helplessness.
This in many cases leads to a new form of psychological distress, for which experts have coined the term: “Eco-Anxiety”.
The American Psychological Association (APA) recognises it as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”.
The term encapsulates the psychological impact of ecological concerns faced by individuals as they witness the degradation of our environment and see its visible effects like smog-blanketed skies — daily reminders of the challenges our planet and we face.
Pollution and mental health
Recently, the Indian capital New Delhi has been living under a blanket of toxic air, which has made it hard for people to breathe.
There were days when the AQI (Air Quality Index) levels plummeted to a hazardous level of up to 999 in some areas. Naturally, this gave rise to a number of health problems. While many landed in hospitals, others battled a silent enemy.
Recent research has also shed light on the connection between pollution and mental health. Studies indicate that exposure to air pollution can contribute to an increased risk of mental health issues.
Talking to WION, Shannon Olsson, a chemical ecologist with over 20 years of experience said that for Delhi, the well-known pollution causes like vehicular emissions, stubble burning etc “come together in (a) perfect storm to create these incredibly high pollution levels which are really a little hard to comprehend even when you’re in Delhi”.
A sense of helplessness
Olsson, who is the Danish Academy of Technical Sciences (ATV) Special Scientific Envoy to India, said that natural disasters, coupled with wars and the many crises lead to a “helplessness that you feel as an individual”.
“You feel like, what can I possibly do to try to control this? It feels like you have very little control and that produces obviously a fear because also these things are dangerous.”
She says that eco-anxiety can manifest helplessness similar to what one feels when “they’ve lost a loved one or lost a job,” which then “causes huge anxiety” especially among “children and our youth who are growing up in these environments where they feel very, very insecure about their own futures.”
This sense of helplessness is also felt by parents.
Talking to WION, Neha Sonawane, a lawyer and a new mother, summed up the eco-anxiety felt by parents in one line: “As I started on this journey of parenthood, it is mostly this feeling of overwhelming sense of responsibility for the world”.
“I don’t know how much my small footprint matters in this larger carbon footprint, but I can try and I can hope that I teach my child a kind, more sustainable method of living,” she added.
How to deal with eco-anxiety?
Like any other mental health concern, seeking professional help is a must. Along with that, it takes effort.
“Anything like air pollution, it can’t be dealt with by one person, it requires a concerted effort and I think this is one of the major limiting factors,” says Olsson.
Living sustainably is another way.
“There are lots of ways that we can reduce our impact on the environment by reusing items by reducing our usage of things like plastic by trying to walk as much as possible by trying to reduce or trying to take public transport as it’s available to us.”
“There’s many things that we can do and there’s lots of alternatives coming out all the time so just keeping our minds open to what is available to us. And there’s lots of cool startups in India right now that are doing really great things, really wonderful, sustainable things that helps me a lot because it helps me to know that there are really wonderful people doing great things and that reduces my anxiety by just seeing that light in other people,” she adds.
However, as per Olsson, all is not bad.
“As a scientist I can tell you if you look at the statistics, the world is actually getting better. Overall, people are living better, things are getting better. The world is actually not as bad as it seems. We just have to keep that hope and keep trying.”
“So the important thing I say is, do not give up, do not just sit down and say there’s nothing, the world is ending. Because it’s not.”
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