‘Eco-anxiety’ under the spotlight at IEMA Connect 2023

21st September 2023

Turning ‘eco-anxiety into eco-action’ was discussed at IEMA Connect 2023 this morning, providing key research and tips to help sustainability professionals deal with feelings of environmental despair.

The discussion could not have come at a better time, with many people feeling particularly hopeless after prime minister Rishi Sunak announced plans to water down the UK’s net-zero commitments yesterday.

Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist and lecturer at the University of Bath, kicked off proceedings by explaining how feelings of eco-anxiety are often related to “politician anxiety”, and are actually a “mentally healthy response” to the climate crisis.

She continued: “You are only feeling this because you care, so really, you should feel proud that you care – we measure mental health by looking at our capacity to respond to external reality.

“We need to be able to feel this range of emotions, including anxiety, frustration, blame, anger, guilt, shame sadness and grief. The journey through these emotions is of enormous value.”

After outlining the wide spectrum of eco-anxiety, and research finding that 75% worldwide think the future is frightening, and that only 28% think governments can be trusted, she explained how feelings of eco-anxiety can be tackled with courage, humour, humility and psychosocial solutions.

Transform editor and host Sharon Maguire (L), Caroline Hickman (R)

She was then joined by Claire Osborne, an accredited sustainability career coach, who spoke about how feelings of eco-anxiety specifically impact sustainability professionals, from directors in large corporates to consultancy workers.

Reciting one testimony, she said: “I’m working so hard I feel like I can’t go on, but knowing what I know, I can’t stop – I feel trapped.”

Osborne explained how sustainability professionals are exposed to the alarming facts behind climate change more than most, and how it can often feel like their jobs are not making a difference.

She then outlined three steps that professionals can take in response to these feelings:

  • Create a space and time to reflect, whether that be a long walk in the countryside, or going to the pub with a pen and paper
  • Articulate your “personal theory of change”, determining the step-by-step processes that you do personally to create the change you wish to see in the world
  • Evaluate whether you believe these processes are really having an impact. If they don't, consider how your role at work can change to make a real impact.

Kat Hamilton, programmes and partnerships director at Force of Nature, then spoke about intergenerational solutions, how 70% of young people feel hopeless about the climate crisis, and what we can do to mobilise mindsets for climate action.

“We need a revolution in mindset – we are not going to solve the climate crisis with the same people and thinking that created it,” they said. “Those who are on the streets putting pressure on politicians are actually just as important and valuable as those people inside of board rooms advocating for sustainability initiatives.

“We need to create forums of intergenerational exchange, where there are people from different generations and backgrounds coming together to shift decisions makers from apathy into action.”

All the speakers gave practical examples of actions that people can take to deal with feelings of eco-anxiety (see extra resources below).

And there was an overwhelmingly positive response from attendees, with so many explaining how they could relate to the issues being discussed, and asking thought-provoking questions to the panel.

One of the most popular questions put forward concerned talking about climate change with sceptics and conspiracy theorists. Hickman explained: “I don't think there are that many deniers out there. What you do have, is defences against the anxiety about climate change.

“People go into defensive modes of displacement, rationalisation, but they are not really deniers, they are just scared, and don't want to face it. A brilliant technique for dealing with this is to ‘seed bomb’ their defensive walls – so throw the information at them, and then move on.”

IEMA members can watch the full recording of ‘eco-anxiety to eco-action’ here: IEMA Connect 2023 (cvent.com)

Additional questions to panel:

Farheen Khanum asks: Do you think people need therapy regarding eco-anxiety?

Hamilton says: I think therapy is definitely a useful tool, and professional support should be sought by people who feel they need it. That said, I’m not a medical professional and the work we do around eco-anxiety at Force of Nature doesn’t pathologise it - we see eco-anxiety as a catch all term for feelings of fear and overwhelm about the climate crisis.

Christopher O'Brien asks: What is more important, being in a role that is really important but you feel like it’s not making a big enough difference, or being happy in your job but doing one that is not really that important?

Osborne says: I don't think it's possible to say one is more important than the other, as your happiness in a role is related to your ability to do work that is important and makes a difference. When we work in a way which drains our energy, we're so much less able to think creatively, inspire others and sustain ourselves for the long term - all incredibly critical for impact. What I'd say is important is to listen to yourself - what is it that's behind that sense of not making a difference? And ask, how can I face into that in a way that will bring both energy and impact?

Nadiya Seeloch asks: My organisation has a high number of workers of the 'old' generation. Is there any advice you can give for developing an effective training program on sustainability?

Hamilton: My biggest advice is to seek out experts who are already doing this work, and measuring the existing levels of knowledge and mindset in your organisation to design the most effective programme. You heard me share about Force of Nature - another partner organisation I recommend companies check out for fundamental climate and sustainability training is AimHi Earth.

Sagar Sumaria asks: Who designed these tools? Were these tools designed by a global ethnic majority? If not, why did they not include us? Why should we embrace tools that don’t include us? Is this colonialism or collaboration?

Hamilton says: I’m going to assume this question refers to the tools I shared that are available on the Force of Nature website! Our tools are actually developed with our community - who are young people from countries all over the world. We abide by the principle of ‘not about us without us’, meaning our process for any curriculum and resource design is done with the input of the groups who it will serve. In our case, that looks like consulting with our community via focus groups (which are remunerated, because we believe that young people should be compensated for their labour), and review sessions. We are also participating currently in a research project which specifically looks to create a global research agenda on climate anxiety via regional and global dialogues. The first report will be available later this year. https://www.connectingclimatem...

Rosemary Horry asks: What would be your top tip for taking a break/getting space?

Osborne: My advice would be to view it a bit like brushing your teeth - a non-negotiable part of your day. Just like dental hygiene, taking breaks are critical for both your wellbeing and your capability to operate at your best (I know I don't want to tackle some crusty bread with an abscess!) If it helps, view taking breaks as part of the job. A precursor to good work, and absolutely not a luxury that you only deserve if you do a good job. For some, I also find it helps to reflect on the personal stories you've had for how breaks have been fundamental to your ability to do good work. The times when 'going slow to go fast' has really worked for you, and vice versa!

Additional resources:

Caroline Hickman slides

Kat Hamilton slides

Claire Osborne


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