Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg has been an inimitable force in spearheading the dialogue on climate change across the world. While the leaders of the governments, diplomats and dignitaries lock horns at the plausibility of climate change, the Swedish activist, with her galvanising movement, has united the younger generations to fight for their surviving chance. And when Thunberg in her emotionally rousing speech at the World Economic Forum said that the hour of the panic is here, the anxiety became more palpable than ever. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is,” she had said. The fear for the end is more real than it ever has been.
Even though the contents of the speech prodded at the adults, it also echoed the anxiety of the present generation. In fact, a classification of anxiety called eco-anxiety has been flaring up in younger generations. Defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” by the American Psychological Association (APA), eco-anxiety has been gripping people as the effects of climate change have become clearer than ever. For instance, 22-years-old Drishti Vanjani registers her rage when she says: “There’s no dearth of incidents of water scarcity or felling of trees. There’s no dearth of people’s ignorance towards the issues either. It’s surprising how people don’t fear their own future. I’m going through this phase of tired rage, where there’s a lot of sound but little bending of minds.”
As a mother to a seven-year-old, Dr. Sharita Shah, Women and Children Psychiatrist at Bombay Hospsital, feels that the conversation about the Climate Change has also seeped into the school curriculum, and needs to be recognised. “In the terms of anxiety, conversations about climate change can cause eustress, which is a positive stress that propels you to take action. It can be motivational, and act in accordance with the push theory,” she says. But how much of this awareness can cause distress among children and teenagers is yet to be perceived. “ In children, there are so many other factors like peer pressure, academic stress, dysfunctional family, genetics among others that can induce anxiety. Similarly, in teenagers, hormonal changes can also contribute. So it’s not easy to delineate say that this is climate related because anxiety per se is a problem, which is multi-factorial,” she adds.
While the chronic effect of eco-anxiety is not as visible as acute ecological ramifications of environemental disasters such as earthquakes or floods, they do manifest in the form of fear, anger, frustration and despair. Dr. Alpes Panchal, consultant psychiatrist delineates that eco-anxiety is another form of existential anxiety. “The idea of eco-anxiety brings out the basic fear of dying. It’s about existential conundrum which in layman terms can be called mid-life crisis and in younger people existential crises,” he says and goes on to add that human beings have suffered from the existential crisis from the day they discovered death.
However, to fight the dread, Panchal explains that people need to understand that climate change is a collective concern and not just one an individual’s problem. “We, as a whole, can do something but we, as an individual, cannot change everything,” he says.
However, for a problem as complex as eco-anxiety, there exists a simple and constructive solution. Changing perceptions through behavioural modifications can go a long way. For instance, participating in plantation and beach clean up drives, adopting methods to conserve resources and joining activism groups among other things can be helpful in dealing with anxiety. Adding to this, Panchal concludes, “People will experience a sense of fulfilment that they have done something. It could be really small, but a sense of fulfilment helps your anxiety decrease a long way.”