Eco-anxiety and COVID-19: Responsibility and Stress--a Talk from Dr. Panu Pihkala?

Recording


Speaker introduction: Dr. Panu Pihkala

Dr. Panu Pihkala is an adjunct professor of environmental theology in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki. His interdisciplinary research deals with the psychological and spiritual dimensions related to environmental issues and especially climate change. Pihkala has become known as an expert in eco-anxiety and has published several books on this topic, such as “Päin helvettiä? Ympäristöahdistus ja toivo”, "Mieli maassa? Ympäristötunteet" ("Environmental emotions"). Pihkala was awarded the National Prize for Adult Education (Sivistyspalkinto) in 2018 by The Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation (Kansanvalistusseura).

Pihkala's key academic articles about eco-anxiety includes:

  • "Anxiety and the Ecological Crisis: An Analysis of Eco-anxiety and Climate anxiety", Sustainability 12:19, 7836 (2020)

  • “Eco-anxiety and Environmental Education”, Sustainability 12:23, 10149.

  • "Eco-anxiety, tragedy, and hope: psychological and spiritual dimensions of climate change”, Zygon 53:2 (2018)

  • “Environmental Education After Sustainability: Hope in the Midst of Tragedy”, Global Discourse 7:1 (2017).


What is Eco-anxiety?

In Dr Pihkala’s paper on Eco-Anxiety and Environmental Education, it is suggested that eco-anxiety is becoming a “wide phenomenon, which is integrally connected with many ecological emotions, psychosocial phenomena, and mental states”. According to a 2018 national survey, almost 70% of people in the United States are worried about climate change, and around 51% feel “helpless”.


Eco-anxiety is defined as anxiety-related feelings that are significantly connected with the ecological crisis. The definition is straightforward, however, the form it takes could be very complex. Broadly speaking, eco-emotions can arise in the following forms :

  • Confusion

  • Desire to do something positive about the problem

  • Anxiety

  • Fear and worry

  • Sadness

  • Guilt, shame

  • Anger

  • Despair, hopelessness

  • Sense of community, belonging or togetherness

Furthermore, anxiety itself can be broken down into:

  • Anxiety Emotions

  • Strong anxiety symptoms

  • Anxiety due to repressed emotions

  • Existential anxiety


Now it seems much more complex. As human beings living on earth, our emotions can arise from many different issues relating to responsibilities, feeling of guilt, questioning our existence on earth, etc. How climate changes are challenging our existence (corresponding to the existential type of anxiety) need to be recognised and given more attention. The fundamental idea of eco-anxiety appears as simple and clear as it is, but it is an extremely complex emotion.


How COVID-19 escalated Eco-anxiety

There are interesting layers of both ecological issues and emotional issues relating to both COVID-19 and anxiety, new ideas and perspectives are emerging, such as eco-anxiety experienced by clinicians, escalated eco-anxiety due to social phenomenons.


Before looking at the effect from COVID-19, let’s first understand the different factors that could affect Emotions/feelings about the climate:

  • Personal history

  • Characteristics

  • Social context

  • Cultural factors

  • Emotion norms, feeling structures, cultural politics of emotion

  • Ecological factors

Broadly speaking, COVID-19 crisis has made coping with Eco Anxiety much more difficult. It is very understandable and actually valuable to feel difficult emotions and feelings because of the state of the world - living under the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis. Fundamentally, eco-anxiety is a healthy emotion in terms of promotion worldwide climate actions, but of course, we need to be aware of the additional effect and pressure that comes from COVID-19 anxiety, making sure that the anxiety doesn’t go astray and causes paralysis or affect our wellbeings.

It is common for us to feel a sense of failure, living under such an age of crisis, however, none of us have chosen to live under these circumstances, we are victims and perpetrators at the same time. Eco-anxiety could be effective as a response to problematic uncertainty and complexity in addressing climate risks, driven by co so-called practical eco-anxiety (from philosopher Charlie Kurth ) - as the sense of guilt and failure sometimes promotes responsibilities. But ultimately we need to find a balance between motivation and disappointment to ensure that one doesn’t overwhelm the other.


Standing from the argument that Eco-anxiety does have value in promoting climate action, we are also aware that climate grief and eco-depression can feel very awful and cause serious mental distress, especially when there is no social support. People having heavy feelings of eco-anxiety could experience a very unpleasant time if feelings of isolation and loneliness are coupled with it, which is further escalated due to COVID-19 crisis. The amount of stress in our body-mind can be much worse with COVID-19 pressure: apart from increasing isolation and solidicity, COVID-19 has also brought with it more emerging social issues: riots, starker social inequalities and segregation etc. With social issues happening around the globe at the same time, many people are experiencing eco-social anxiety, which is anxiety arising from both environmental related issues or social factors. Ultimately, the trigger of anxiety is different for each individual, but COVID-19 has made people’s mental status more difficult to cope with.


Solutions?

It is often argued that eco-anxiety is only a phenomenon appearing among rich or middle-class people, however, Dr Pihakala suggested that eco-anxiety is increasingly becoming a widely prevalent emotion throughout different communities in the society, and many of the oppressed people have experienced profound dark emotions because of the state of the world and the planet we’re in. This is why we do need to find ways to live with these difficult emotions, and luckily there are many possible solutions.

Feeling emotions in our body-minds are good ways to manage eco-anxiety, this might sound simple but people usually don’t have the resources, strength and courage to manage and feel their own emotion and as a result, they find themselves stuck in greater grief and sadness. This is extremely difficult to overcome because of the limited availability of organisational and professional guides to deal with anxiety issues.


Interesting research has also shown that being able to explore these emotions and name different emotional states helps us to have a better grip on managing eco-anxiety. Although we might not want to “control ” our emotions actively, “ecological emotional stillness” could help to manage our emotional functionality. Our ability to help others with their emotions and being recognized by others are also highly valued when dealing with eco-anxiety that arises coupling with isolation anxieties.


Furthermore, one exercise proposed by Dr. Pihkala - the “Mindmap of ecological emotions” could also be a good starting point. In this exercise we take a few minutes to think, reflect, evaluate and write down a few emotions that we are feeling towards climate change. It is very simple but often when we start to be more mindful of what we’re experiencing and look into each emotional state specifically, we could then better manage them and perhaps identify actions we could take to mitigate mental discomforts brought by Eco-anxiety.

Take some time to process your emotions, find stillness and evaluate your actions.

In terms of contradicting emotions, it is important to keep an open mind. It is very normal to drift between certainty and uncertainty, hope and despair. Sometimes we trust that we can do meaningful actions and sometimes we feel powerless, not being able to reverse the damages. Actively recognizing these issues genuinely helps us to better cope with them.


Comparing to COVID-19 anxiety

One similarity is that they have a common relation to macro-social issues and worries, or in plain English, the state of the world. Historically it is very common for fears and anxiety to arise from the current state of the world. An example could be nuclear anxiety, concerning the fear that there will be nuclear war, which is very prevalent among the generation of people who have experienced wartime struggles.


The emergence of COVID-19 anxiety was dynamic. At first, there were concerns that it would spread from China, followed by anxiety and panic when the crisis hit, then people’s emotions changed during the COVID-19 crisis. But generally, 3 emotions that COVID-19 anxiety shares with eco-anxiety are Guilt, Anger and Sadness.


How could young people deal with eco-anxiety when climate actions are being restricted because of COVID-19 policies?

It was very difficult to cope with eco-anxiety even before COVID. Climate actions could help to relieve anxiety to some extent, but we need to be aware of the possibilities of climate action burnout. Many good minded people ended up in criticism and fatigue because of excessive climate actions.

We are seeing more corporations that are incorporating more employee activities wellbeing and this is helping eco-anxiety relieve. Now employees are encouraged to realize that it is fine for them to take a break and shut down our mind sometimes. The situations are different in different countries based on level of lockdown restrictions, in Finland people are starting to go to National parks, city parks again and this could help with mitigating climate eco-anxiety as well people have different ways to help themselves go through this trouble time, for example: yoga, meditation, even pushing the wall really hard for 1 minute to just get your body moving. Some people have even expressed that they feel like their mental strength has grown throughout the pandemic and it is a very positive sign.


Concluding remarks:

As COVID-19 Crisis imposes significant challenges to cope with existing eco-anxiety, here we establish three main helpful ways:

  • Meaning-focused coping

  • Problem-focused coping

  • Emotion-focused coping

The following paper gave a thorough explanation and case studies for each of the coping methods: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/12/23/10149/pdf


Action helps both in relation to solving eco-anxiety and solving the climate problem, but we need to be aware of different individual experiences and try to avoid the extreme end of climate action burnout. We are not advocating for people to take eco-anxiety as something they should try to develop in their mind, but it is definitely a way to promote climate actions in the long run. If the future trend of sustainable development has strong uncertainty, it is crucial for people to have a sense of stress and anxiety in order to promote actions to be taken. Courage and realistic hope, a belief in our potential to make meaningful effort is very important. Although we get bad news from time to time, we also need to see and spread the good news to make people aware of our strength and potential to change.


“Hope in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well … but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good” - Vaclav Havel

References:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238430987_We_Don't_Really_Want_to_Know_Environmental_Justice_and_Socially_Organized_Denial_of_Global_Warming_in_Norway

https://researchportal.helsinki.fi/en/persons/panu-pihkala

https://www.climatepsychologyalliance.org/handbook/451-eco-anxiety

https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/12/23/10149/pdf


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