All About Eco-Anxiety: What It Is, Why It’s on the Rise, and Coping With It


Hickman says that trying to distill eco-anxiety into a set of “symptoms” is not helpful, in part because it is a rational response to a real threat, rather than a medical condition.

Other experts echo her sentiments. “Eco-anxiety is not necessarily pathological — we need to be careful about that — because environmental threats are real,“ says Liza Jachens, PhD, a psychologist and assistant professor at University of Nottingham in England.

She points out that other forms of anxiety are often defined by being disproportionate to the threat. In other words, the anxiety is in some way irrational. Eco-anxiety, on the other hand, “may be argued to be a normal and rational response to a real climate emergency,” she says.

In the framework Hickman has developed, she categorizes eco-anxiety into four levels of severity. These are not hard-and-fast categories, she says, and people may move from one category to the other or inhabit several at once. But they provide a rough guide to what the experience can look like.

Mild Eco-Anxiety

People are worried or upset, but not all the time. They believe that solutions or answers to climate change are in the works, and they are able to experience optimism about the future. They can reduce their anxiety by making choices that they feel are helpful, such as recycling or eating less meat. And they don’t experience too much emotional or cognitive disruption in their everyday lives.

Medium Eco-Anxiety

People feel upset or anxious more often, such as weekly, and they have increasing doubts about the likelihood of solutions or fixes. They experience greater levels of distress or discomfort, and more willingness to make changes that could be helpful — such as cutting back on air travel. They are not preoccupied or distracted by thoughts of climate change, but they are more likely to think about it frequently.

Significant Eco-Anxiety

People have daily feelings of distress, fear, or guilt, and they are aware these feelings are becoming more common and intense. They worry about climate change, but also about social collapse and other related threats. They are becoming harder to comfort and console, and they feel increasingly guilty about the effect of climate change on future generations. They are willing to cut off relationships with people who aren’t concerned or prepared to act against climate change. They show a much greater willingness to make large sacrifices in response to climate change, such as choosing not to have children or not to fly.

Severe Eco-Anxiety

Their distress or preoccupation with climate change causes major disruptions, such as an inability to sleep or enjoy life. They may have an unshakeable belief that climate change will lead to social collapse, and they may be terrified that human extinction is possible or likely. Their emotional responses, such as crying or angry outbursts, become uncontrollable. They are unable to maintain employment or education due to lack of focus or distress. They may develop a fatalist attitude, such as the belief that nothing matters. In the most extreme cases, they may have thoughts of suicide.

Hickman says that eco-anxiety can cause depression, anger, grief, or other psychological states that some may label as “disorders.” But again, she doesn’t believe this language is appropriate in the context of climate change concerns.

Other experts highlight additional features. “Because eco-anxiety is related to ecological threats and damage, it often arises when the person is reminded of such issues,” says Dr. Pihkala.

“Another prominent feature is future-orientedness,” he adds. “People fear that the future will be very bad because of the ecological crisis.”

Pihkala says the physical and psychological features of eco-anxiety are often similar to other forms of anxiety. According to the APA’s report on eco-anxiety, these may include:

  • Stress
  • Strains on social relationships
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Aggression and violence
  • Feelings of helplessness, fatalism, or fear
  • Sleep disturbances

Anxiety and distress, whether in response to climate change or other factors, can also cause physical symptoms. Research on eco-anxiety has highlighted several, including feelings of nausea, weakness, fatigue, and numbness, according to the aforementioned review published in The Journal of Climate Change and Health.

The takeaway is that eco-anxiety is a complex psychological experience that can manifest in many ways. Its key features are worry or fear associated with climate change.


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