How Environmental Degradation Harms Your Mental Health

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From natural disasters to rising sea levels, climate change is undoubtedly affecting our planet. According to many psychology professionals, it’s also affecting our mental health. Specifically, a 2017 report from the American Psychological Association (APA) brought attention to both the major and subtle ways that environmental degradation can be a source of trauma. For some, they experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to injuries, loss of personal property and threats to income. For others, it’s what the APA calls, “a chronic fear of environmental doom” that’s been dubbed “eco-anxiety.”

These feelings can be difficult to manage, but an uncontrollable state of panic or distress levels that interrupt your daily life (e.g. eating, sleeping, exercise), simply won’t help anyone — especially during the fraught time of coronavirus. Instead, leading mental health and climate change expert Dr. Courtney Howard says it’s better to have “Constructive Unpleasant Emotions” (CUEs) which help promote real environmental impact.

Dr. Howard is not asking us to ignore the alarming facts and figures, but writes that we should try to “achieve a centered place where we are able to make the strategic decisions required for us to adapt to the climate impacts we can’t now avoid, and avoid the ones we can’t adapt to.” Essentially, she has hope that we can transform negative mental health impacts associated with climate change into actions that pave the way for a brighter future. But first, we have to understand the gravity of the environmental situation, both our direct and indirect experiences of it.

What Happens When We Ignore the Environment’s Impact on Mental Health?

When communities directly experience a climate change-related trauma, roughly 15% of people show symptoms of PTSD, according to the APA report. This condition is often linked to increased depression, anxiety, substance abuse, violence, aggression, social problems and suicidal ideation. The effects are worse for those who have lost close family members or property in floods, wildfires, earthquakes, or other natural disasters. If an individual has been living with a prolonged disastrous situation or multiple disasters, they’re reported to be less likely to overcome their mental health issues. As humans, we can only deal with so many setbacks before it gets harder to get back up.

When PTSD isn’t successfully treated, the person suffering from the condition can have physical ailments caused by stress or unhealthy coping strategies (e.g. poor eating, drug and alcohol use). Additionally, their family and friend groups may be broken apart by the devastation, which leads to feelings of isolation and loneliness. For those who lost their jobs, their sense of identity can be compromised. The effects are seemingly endless and an overall feeling of meaninglessness can spread throughout a community.

The Psychological Effects of Heat

It might be surprising, but the APA reports that hotter weather is related to increased violence and aggression. This is because our arousal levels go up and our ability to self-regulate goes down. We’re more likely to have negative and hostile thoughts that cause angry outbursts. If you’ve ever snapped on someone and realized that it’s because you were too physically hot, it’s easy to understand how this phenomenon causes some people to lash out in extreme ways.

The effects of hot weather spike during heat waves but the APA flags that it’s become a general concern now that warmer weather is becoming the norm. Hospitals are also seeing more heat-related illnesses and fatalities, while cold-related medical issues are decreasing. A study in Australia found a 7.3% increase in hospital admissions for dementia, mood disorders, stress, and substance abuse conditions when the temperature is above 80°F. It’s suggested that one of the reasons for this is that medications could be interfering with thermoregulation, causing people to be more sensitive to heat.

Dealing with Eco-Anxiety

An indirect effect of climate change is eco-anxiety, a fear of environmental degradation that becomes similar to a phobia. It’s characterized by constant thoughts of anger, powerlessness, exhaustion, or all three. People suffering from eco-anxiety might feel overwhelmingly guilty about their contributions, no matter how small, to an environmental situation that future generations will inherit — many even debate having children for this very reason. From owning a car, to using plastics, many worry that they cannot do enough themselves to offset or mitigate the effects of a warming planet.

When these thoughts are too consuming, this mental state can reduce our ability to relate to others causing negative relationships with family, friends, and co-workers. For example, we might only relate to others with the same environmental awareness and dismiss those who don’t agree with our viewpoint.

Promote eco-friendly changes

So how do we turn feelings of eco-anxiety into Dr. Howard’s CUEs? The APA says that we can channel this energy into developing personal resilience (belief in the ability to overcome trauma), prepare for potential risks, and find tangible ways to support our communities. We can work to promote eco-friendly changes to daily life and reduce disparities that make some people more vulnerable.

This can’t be done only out of fear, however. We need to find optimism and approach these actions from a place of empathy rather than frustration. Although it might seem counterintuitive to work on yourself when a threat to the entire globe is on the horizon, establishing good mental health will make you a stronger champion for the planet. The world needs you to be at your best.

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