Eco-Anxiety and the Church
What is Eco-Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural response to current or impending danger. Anxiety has both mental and physical effects on the human body which can help us respond to emergency situations, however the long term effects of continued anxiety can be harmful.
The world is currently facing significant environmental issues, including climate change, pollution, loss of natural habitats, and species extinction. In this article we’ll look primarily at the issue of climate change, but this is not the only ecological issue.
There are likely to be significant health issues associated with increasing climate change. First there are direct physical and mental consequences from climate-induced ecological changes. These might include more heat-related illnesses, extended ranges of tropical diseases such as mosquito-borne diseases, and poorer nutrition from reduced crop yields. Rising sea levels are already disproportionately affecting traditional ways of life for Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, and many of our Pacific Island neighbours.
Second, climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of some natural disasters, such as flooding, cyclones, bushfires and droughts. These disasters can have significant physical and mental health consequences.
Third, some people suffer fear, worry, anxiety and stress about the possible future consequences of climate change on their future happiness and well-being, the well-being of their children,and about the future well-being of the planet as a whole. This chronic anxiety about the future consequences of climate change and other ecological problems is what is called eco-anxiety.
Concern about climate change is a rational response to this issue and can be a spur to personal action and community activism to limit future global warning and plan adaptations to a changing environment. It is when this healthy concern changes to debilitating eco-anxiety that this becomes a significant problem.
Is Eco-Anxiety Really a Problem?
Widespread anxiety has been caused by many major global threats over many decades. Anxiety over nuclear annihilation during the cold war of the mid-twentieth century was common. Terrorist attacks, prolonged droughts, and the overthrow of governments can all lead to ongoing anxiety about personal safety and well-being. Worry about environmental crises is a similar form of anxiety, and it is now widespread. Eco-anxiety is particularly common among children and young adults. People in these age-groups have less developed coping mechanisms when faced with information about ecological crises.
What are the Symptoms?
Some of the oldest parts of the human brain – the limbic system and the medulla – are designed to respond to environmental danger. The so-called “fight or flight” response releases hormones that allow humans to cope with a threat. However, chronic anxiety results in us being in a continual state of high alert. This results in undesirable, long-term changes to brain chemistry and physical well-being.
Eco-anxiety can lead to negative feelings and emotions, such as
- social disengagement (“checking out”) because of an increased sense of hopelessness about the planet’s changes,
- anger or frustration, particularly toward people who don’t acknowledge climate change or older generations for not making more progress,
- fatalistic thinking,
- existential dread,
- guilt or shame related to one’s own carbon footprint,
- post-traumatic stress after experiencing effects of climate change,
- feelings of depression, anxiety, or panic,
- grief and sadness over the loss of natural environments or wildlife populations, and
- obsessive thoughts about the climate.
These can have secondary issues such as
- Loss of appetite,
- Difficulty concentrating,
- Substance and alcohol abuse,
- Suicidal thoughts.
Concern about the environment is healthy, especially when it leads to positive action and improved well-being. Chronic eco-anxiety is not healthy and is not consistent with mental well-being.
What is an appropriate personal response?
A common trigger for eco-anxiety can be a feeling of helplessness, that you have no ability to control what happens to the planet. One approach for managing eco-anxiety can be to promote a sense of agency by actively doing something to care for creation. Examples include
- Including creation-care as part of personal prayer and devotions,
- Living more in alignment with your values,
- Reducing your energy consumption,
- Recycling and reusing where possible,
- Cutting back on flying,
- Not feeling ashamed,
- Focussing efforts on changing systems, as well as yourself,
- Finding like-minded people to discuss issues,
- Protecting and nurturing green spaces,
- Talking about changes you’ve made in your lifestyle,
- Eating a healthier, more climate friendly-diet
- Riding or walking rather than driving,
- Spending time in nature,
- Supporting creation-care groups and initiatives .
How can you help kids?
Children appear more susceptible to eco-anxiety because they have less developed coping mechanisms. Many of the same things suggested in the previous section can be useful for children, but children often have fewer choices about their family lifestyles. Children look to parents and family members first for guidance and protection. Some additional ideas for children include:
- Acknowledging children’s feelings and concerns, and acknowledging that ecological problems are real,
- Explaining the science, putting the likely consequences of climate change in perspective while still answering concerns truthfully,
- Looking at encouraging, positive responses now being undertaken by many governments.
- Making decisions as a family about creation-care initiatives that you might start,
- Encouraging children to undertake their own creation-care initiatives,
- Including creation-care issues in family prayers.
What is our Christian (Lutheran) Response?
As Christians, our faith provides us with a rich set of traditions, practices and beliefs that can help us to deal with anxiety, suffering and distress.
- We are confident that Christ is with us in any suffering, that that God continues to care and provide for our needs. While we are right to be concerned about social issues, we are also encouraged to trust in God’s faithfulness and protection. See Matthew 6:25-34.
- Recognition that our daily lifestyles may contribute to earth’s ecological problems can lead to feeling of guilt or shame. As Christians we acknowledge that we are both saints and sinners, and that despite our failings we can still work for good. See Romans 7: 21-25.
- There are many times in biblical history when God’s people have found themselves in trouble through their own actions, and yet God remains faithful and always seeks reconciliation and restoration. Many Psalms are powerful cries for God’s deliverance. See Psalm 3, Psalm 6, Psalm 18, Psalm 25 and many others.
- Acknowledging that our sinful nature can be a first step towards encouraging action to care for creation. There are many cases where God’s forgiveness has enabled biblical characters to move past their sins to constructive action. See Psalm 51.
- Having conversations about issues such as climate change can be difficult, but Christians are encouraged to have such difficult conversations in a spirit of mutual respect and reconciliation. See Ephesians 2: 11-22
- Christian have a rich set of scriptural and musical resources that praise God. Sometimes we can forget how wonderful God’s creation still is, and we should continue to give thanks for God’s bountiful creation. See Psalm 8, Psalm 104, your favourite hymns.
- Our worship services and the cycles of the Church year provide a framework for confirming our role as stewards of creation. Consider how your congregation might celebrate the yearly Season of Creation.
- Prayer is a powerful vehicle for personal growth and change. Including creation care in personal and corporate prayers can help us to better contribute to God’s mission to care for all the earth.
- The Bible has many responses to disaster in the form of lament. Simply acknowledging the pain and grief associated with the ecological crisis can open up a spiritual space for God’s healing to enter in. See Lamentations 1:1-22; Joel 1:1-20
- The Church provides communities of care and concern, and church congregations can operate corporately to care for creation, and be a voice for the poor and oppressed who are most affected by climate change. Corporate action in a mutually supportive community can ease anxiety and make taking action easier. See Matthew 5:13-16, James 2:14-26
References and Further Reading?
Climate Change Taking a Toll on Your Mental Health? How to Cope With ‘Eco-Anxiety’. https://www.healthline.com/health/eco-anxiety
The Environmental Burden of Generation Z
A Christian response to Eco-Anxiety
Reimagining Christian Hope(lessness) in the Anthropocene
Neil Bergmann, 15 September 2021