Mind & Body

The difficulty in understanding and treating eco-anxiety

Anxiety is the body and mind’s reaction to a perceived threat. But what if that threat is real?

The first time Kate Nelson experienced eco-anxiety was when she discovered it can take plastic up to 500 years to break down. As a lover of the ocean, into which about eight million tonnes of plastic find its way every year, she was horrified.

“I had never felt worried about our environment before, but this was the first time I was genuinely panicked about the health of the oceans and marine creatures,” she recalls.

“I felt so anxious that my use of plastics had desecrated the ocean, my temple. My playground. This overwhelm, the vastness of the pollution, the ubiquity of plastics, it almost paralysed me.”

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Eco-anxiety is a relatively new term to describe persistent worries and stress relating to the state of the earth and the significant role humans have played in its gradual degradation.

While anxiety arises from your body and mind’s perceived, and a usually fictitious at that, threat, climate change is very real and therefore eco-anxiety presents a unique challenge to understand and treat it.

Lysn psychologist Rucha Lele admits she was not instructed on how to address eco-anxiety at university because “it was not and still has not been included as a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [Of Mental Disorders],” despite its prevalence among Australians sitting at up to 90 percent.

For around a decade, experts have known that climate change can impact mental health, “following a report published by the American Psychological Association, urging mental health professionals to take the concerns seriously,” but it’s largely up to the individual to keep up-to-date with new developments on the subject.

“Given the ever-evolving field of psychology, I have managed this personally by research and review of literature and keeping up to date with any new or developing treatment guidelines,” she says.

As with most mental health issues, Lele says the first step is acknowledging when you’re experiencing. For Nelson, that came with a realisation there was a tangible, actionable solution.

She started off making small adjustments like a reusable coffee cup, bringing her own bags to the shops, and doing an audit to identify plastics and where alternatives could be used.

“I taught myself how to live without plastics, and my lifestyle became more natural, and as a result more beautiful and fulfilling,” she says, sharing her journey through her Instagram account, Plastic Free Mermaid, which has amassed over 100,000 followers. Incidentally, this is another tip from Lele: Creating a safe and supportive environment.

“I shared my way of life and many people were interested to also adopt some of my practices,” she says.

“A lifestyle change doesn’t happen overnight, and neither does the saving of the planet. It all happens with small actions, that add up to big change.”

Rucha Lele is a psychologist at Lysn. Lysn is a digital mental health company with world-class wellbeing technology that helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist whilst being able to access online tools to improve their mental health