Eco-anxiety affecting more people - and inspiring them to change

While hers is relatively mild, Southdale resident Penny Summers joins the growing ranks of those who suffer from what's being termed eco-anxiety. However, for her, it inspired her to change some habits, especially where plastic is concerned

Penny Summers says plastics clogging the planet have prompted changes to her lifestyle

A Chinese labourer sorting out plastic bottles for recycling in Dong Xiao Kou village, on the outskirt of Beijing in September 2015. Winnipeg's Penny Summers is among those who suffers from 'eco-anxiety,' which she says was brought on in her case by feelings of being overwhelmed about the amount of plastic in the environment. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

For Penny Summers, the tipping point was plastic.

"I think a lot of people, myself included, you start looking at 'Where do I start making changes?' And for me specifically, it was plastics," said the Winnipeg resident.

"Plastic is everywhere now. And it's so commonplace, that you don't even pay attention to it. And when you start really paying attention to it, it's like, 'Oh my god,'" she said, describing feelings of being overwhelmed about what to do with the plastic she has and how to dispose of it in an environmentally conscious way.

Summers joins the ranks of those who suffer from what's being termed "eco-anxiety" — where people worry excessively about possible, future or existing climate change and related issues.

The term has become a shorthand description for symptoms that psychologists are starting to see around the world.

It was is detailed in a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association that suggests worrying about climate change is having a serious impact on our mental health, and it's something they say we need to pay a lot more attention to.

While Summers's eco-anxiety is relatively mild — she doesn't suffer panic attacks or other physical symptoms — she does worry about the future, especially where plastic is concerned.

It prompted the Southdale resident to make some simple changes — like composting more, not using straws, reusing everything she can and bringing reusable bags to stores.

Despite doing these things, she says she's not always sure she makes a positive impact.

"It's such a small drop in the bucket, but you know, many drops make an ocean. The more people that do it, the better it is."

Extreme case

The most extreme case of eco-anxiety that B.C.'s Dr. Robert Gifford has heard about involved a teenage boy in Australia. The boy was so worried about contributing to the continent's dryness, he was refusing to drink water.

"That's not common," said the professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria. "That's kind of the poster child, if you will, for extreme eco-anxiety."

A 2005 file photo shows an emaciated sheep standing in a field near Port Augusta, Australia. The most extreme case of eco-anxiety that Dr. Robert Gifford has heard about involved a teenage boy in Australia who was so worried about contributing to the continent's dryness, he refused to drink water. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Still, lesser forms do plague people, and they fall into two general categories, he said.

The first might be called pre-traumatic eco-anxiety, where people worry about ecological catastrophe in their futures — especially people who live in vulnerable areas. The second is post- or concurrent eco-anxiety, where people note the changes in their neighbourhoods and worry.

The best thing is to see it as a mountain to climb, but it is a climbable mountain. It's not an unclimbable mountain.- Dr. Robert Gifford

He also cited a recent study done by honour student Lauren Colborne that suggests people who are more attached to a place tend to suffer from this type of anxiety more than people who are not.

"People who are more attached to where they live may have a sense that they have more to lose by climate change than people who perhaps are less attached or more mobile," he said.

People also tend to react in two ways — the first is to see the anxiety and issues behind it as a challenge to overcome, and the second is to withdraw into themselves, which is more worrying, he said.

Given the ecological state of the world — acidifying oceans, reductions in birds and insects, plastics in our water supply — it can seem an insurmountable problem, and the media focusing on the negative doesn't always help, Gifford said.

"We can overcome this problem. We can adapt and we can mitigate, we can improve our behaviour … but it's going to take effort.

"The best thing is to see it as a mountain to climb, but it is a climbable mountain. It's not an unclimbable mountain."

Practical efforts everyone can make

People don't have to go to extremes to start making a change. Winnipeg's Green Action Centre says there are several practical ways to reduce your ecological footprint.

  • Avoid using straws at restaurants or bring a metal or reusable straw.
  • You can bring a reusable cup to fast food restaurants too, whether it's for coffee or for a soft drink.
  • Get into the habit of bringing your own reusable shopping bags — not just for groceries but at other stores, like clothing and electronic stores, or say a polite "no" to the bag.
  • Take transit or bike more often to work.
  • Farmers markets contain food that has less packaging. Buying in bulk reduces packaging, too. Or avoid using packaging that can't be recycled in Manitoba.
  • Concentrate on buying well-made clothing made from cotton, bamboo, hemp or other natural materials, or host a clothing swap.
  • Bar soap contains significantly less packaging than liquid soap.
  • And there are many more ideas — check them out here.

With files from The Current