Eco-anxiety: Understanding the impact of the environment on mental health

Eco-anxiety is a growing concern in today’s world, as the state of the environment continues to deteriorate. In this interview, Consultant Psychologist Rita Aggarwal sheds light on the connection between the environment and anxiety, discussing the various manifestations of eco-anxiety and providing strategies for managing it.

Given that mental health is a continuum, how do you isolate eco elements that contribute to anxiety?

Living in a high-crime area or a politically volatile area that witnesses frequent community clashes and war creates and enhances anxiety. The same is true for living in an area with poor air and water quality.  People living in areas prone to natural disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes, drought, mudslides, cloudbursts, forest fires or floods can suffer constant anxiety and fear of potential harm/recurrence. Extreme weather conditions can be a trigger for anxiety in some and lead to stress in daily living. 

What are the most common manifestations of eco-anxiety? 

Like other forms of anxiety, eco-anxiety can manifest physically as headaches, fatigue, muscle tension, and sleep disturbances. Other symptoms include excessive worry and fear, restlessness, irritability, poor concentration, palpitations, sweating, trembling, digestive issues, etc. 

Anxiety is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon and symptoms vary. Those who recognise anxiety as a disorder may get assistance sooner to prevent the condition from getting worse.  

Do patients seek specific help- can they identify it as a cause, or do they come to you for more generalised reasons?

People experiencing eco-anxiety may or may not explicitly identify it as the primary reason for seeking help, and their approach to seeking assistance can vary. In many cases, individuals with eco-anxiety may initially exhibit more generalized symptoms of anxiety, depression, or stress. It is, however, likely that during the course of therapy the underlying cause of their distress may be explored, and patients may eventually express concerns related to the environment and climate change. The disease spectrum connects the mind-body as a whole and cannot be seen in isolation. Besides anxiety disorder, it could also present as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mood disorders, substance use disorders, and self-harm and suicide in extreme scenarios. 

Rita Aggarwal

Is there a gender and demographic differential?

Research studies suggest that there is a gender and demographic differential for anxiety. As caregivers, women are more prone to experience anxiety disorders than men and certain demographic factors such as age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status may also play a role in the prevalence and expression of anxiety. Societal and cultural factors can also influence the perception and experience of anxiety within different demographic groups. 

What elements- such as doomsday scrolling, information overload etc. contribute to enhance it?

Excessive indulgence in social media can add to the already existing state of anxiety. New terms have been coined to explain certain phenomena related to social media that contribute to anxiety- such as, ‘doomsday scrolling’ which means exposing oneself to negative or alarming news and updates; ‘information overload’ which indicates that the constant stream of news, opinions, and updates can be overwhelming as one is unable to process it properly. There are more new terms, such as, ‘sensationalising’, ‘fear mongering’, ‘FOMO’ due to social comparisons which can generate feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

Take us through a treatment protocol.

Although eco-anxiety is not a clinically recognized disorder with specific treatment protocols, general mental health strategies can be beneficial and be used for good results. General counseling by a mental health professional helps in identifying the stressors causing the negative emotions and thoughts. 

Therapies such as deep breathing, relaxation methods, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), yoga, meditation, mindfulness strategies, can help manage anxiety. Physical exercise, nature walks, gardening, socializing, support groups of affected persons can be relieving. Limiting news consumption and social media scrolling can be useful. Developing coping strategies such as building resilience, problem solving, emotional regulation, can be helpful in the long run. 

Between the physical manifestations of pollution induced diseases and the mental manifestations of it, which is likely to grow faster and have graver impacts? 

The physical manifestations of pollution on people are imminent as it impacts everyone exposed to it. For example, if there is a dust storm, everyone exposed will cough. The mental manifestations are slow to show-up, go generally un-reported and not understood by the sufferer as well as the others. The awareness of mental impacts is poor and hence manifests itself only in the long run as it becomes a chronic condition. We know that besides pollution, there are multiple factors in the environment that impact the individual. There are host factors within the individual (constitution, genetics, immunity) and within the environment (job stress, quality of family relationships, economic status, age, other types of stresses) that interact to create the disease. The ensuing mental impacts are slower to manifest as they are ignored and neglected.