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Explainer: What is ‘climate anxiety’ and how psychologists are offering therapy

Explainer: What is ‘climate anxiety’ and how psychologists are offering therapy

Explainer: What is ‘climate anxiety’ and how psychologists are offering therapy
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By CNBCTV18.com Feb 7, 2022 3:49 PM IST (Published)

Climate anxiety is affecting an increasingly large number of people in the world. The feelings of eco-anxiety have been spreading over the past decades. In the largest survey of its kind held last year, nearly 60 percent of respondents between the ages of 16 and 25 years said they felt worried or extremely worried about climate change. 56 percent said that they felt that humanity was already doomed.

As global warming continues to disrupt weather patterns and change climatic conditions, the frequency and intensity of weather-related disasters are increasing every year. From raging forest fires to intense heat waves to floods, hurricanes, cloud bursts and more, the world is feeling the wrath of nature as climatic systems become increasingly destabilised.

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After decades of stubbornness, several nations and corporations are finally starting to act on reducing carbon emissions. But their efforts are not only too late but also too little. The commitments made at the COP26 summit in Glasgow last year failed to impress many, with China and India’s decision to dilute the strength of the commitment made against fossil fuel particularly standing out.
In these conditions, more and more individuals are faced with a sense of impending doom in the coming decades as a result of climate change. This ‘eco-anxiety’ is affecting more and more individuals, and psychologists are struggling to keep up.
What is eco-anxiety?
The term ‘eco-anxiety’ has been defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. Experts say striking visuals that people see on their screens almost on a daily basis, along with the news of locals turning into refugees due to multiple environmental crises, is causing young people to become ‘eco-anxious.’
The feelings of eco-anxiety have been spreading over the past decades.
Last year in the largest survey of its kind, nearly 60 percent of respondents between the ages of 16 and 25 years said they felt worried or extremely worried about climate change. 56 percent said that they felt that humanity was already doomed.
The survey was conducted by researchers from the University of Bath on 10,000 individuals spread out across 10 countries: UK, Finland, France, USA, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, India, Philippines and Nigeria.
Seventy-four percent of Indian respondents feel that humanity is doomed, the highest among all countries surveyed. Four out of five Indian youth believed that the future is frightening, with 67 percent of the respondents believing that they would have fewer opportunities than their parents due to climate change.
What are therapists doing?
Despite the growing menace of eco-anxiety, many counsellors are ill-prepared to combat such issues. Ecopsychology was not a field that even existed a decade ago. “The psychological impacts of global climate change” was perhaps one of the first studies in which researchers realised that climate change will have a tremendous psychological impact on millions around the world, not only those who are ‘directly’ affected but also those who are following the developments from privileged areas of the world.
Dr Thomas J Doherty, one of the authors of the paper, who saw many affected individuals, set up a clinical psychological practice to help those suffering from eco-anxiety, reported the New York Times. While Dr Doherty uses more traditional techniques like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, he has also inculcated more unusual techniques like logotherapy, or existential therapy, which is a field founded by Viktor E Frankl, a German concentration camp survivor.
At the same time, many eco-anxious people still have to deal with counsellors who don’t understand the source of their distress or instead downplay them.
“Right now there are no (climate-related) requirements in any licensures, in psychiatry, psychology, social work, counselling. No school or licensing board is requiring any training in these fields. Which is why these therapists, who are just people too, don’t recognise what (those feelings) are really about. It gets put back on the client. It’s a terrible thing. But I think it will change,” explained psychologist Leslie Davenport in an interview to Grist, an American non-profit online magazine that focuses on environmental news.
Therapists seeing an increase in patients
The psychosocial demands of the climate crisis call for an examination of how our clinical formulations and treatments can reinforce counterproductive extracting, hyper individuation, monetising, producing, consuming, and commodifying self-identities and values, said Gary Belkin, the former executive deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, in an op-ed published in Psychiatric News, a newsletter published by the American Psychiatric Association.
"We are all psychologically unprepared to face the accelerating existential crisis of climate and ecological change that will further deepen other destructive fault lines in our society,” Belkin added.
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