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'Eco-Anxiety' Is Very Real And It's On The Rise

A racing heart, chest tightness, breathlessness, butterflies in the pit of the stomach -- this is how environmental challenges are affecting some Australians.

Day after day we are hit with news headlines about floods, fires, melting ice caps, pollution, plastics, animals under threat and government inaction.

Many people feel powerless and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues facing the world and are becoming frustrated at the level of inaction.

It's been dubbed eco-anxiety.

While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not include this as a specific diagnosis, psychologists are seeing patients present with high levels of stress over climate change. Their symptoms include panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite, and insomnia.

Eco-anxiety is a growing problem Photo: Getty

According to a Lowy Institute poll released in May, climate change is considered a "critical threat" to our national interests by almost two-thirds of Australians -- ranking it a higher serious concern among the population than terrorism.

'Eco-anxiety' is new, but something Sarah Udin, in her mid-20s, has struggled with personally.

"Sometimes I wake up from nightmares of the dystopian future that’s becoming more of a reality for our children," she told 10 daily.

"My biggest fear is that plastic is going to take over our oceans, which are rising, ecosystems are going to become unrecognisable, the climate is going to get more extreme, famine will become widespread and life will be much more difficult."

Udin said the more she educated herself, the worse her anxiety gets.

The more I worry about how much of a negative impact humans have had in such a short space of time

Dr Susie Burke is a Melbourne-based psychologist, who said she treats a number of people suffering from this sometimes debilitating anxiety.

She said it's not just millennials seeking help.

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“In my practice, I get a mixture of people across age groups,” Burke said.

"When worrying about climate change people can become very paralysed in their own everyday behaviours."

For some, the condition is debilitating  Photo: Getty

She explained that the federal government decisions are a big concern for her clients, with Queensland's Adani coal mine a big sticking point.

"I've seen quite a few people in recent months, particularly after the federal election," she said.

There is deep anxiety about the future"

There are currently no statistics relating specifically to eco-anxiety, but according to Beyond Blue, one in six Australians experience depression, anxiety or both.

Burke's advice to those suffering was to stay hopeful and focus on the cleaner, greener and better community they are working towards..

"It’s important that people still have hope the face of what seems like a daunting challenge," she said.

Photo: Getty

Burke suggested people do what they can, such as eating less red meat, refraining from single-use plastics and limiting waste and engaging in local groups.

She suggested things like taking a break from media reports on climate change and doing some exercise.

But ultimately,  Burke said the best thing to do is talk with other people about your feelings and what you're worried about.

READ MORE: What Is The Actual Difference Between Stress And Anxiety?

"It stops people from trying to stop pretending this isn’t a problem and helps you to feel comforted," she explained.

Country NSW in drought. Image: Getty Images

In 2018 medical journals, the Lancet and Medical Journal of Australia joined forces to investigate the health impacts of climate change. The authors concluded that there was no national action plan for battling health issues derived from climate change.

READ MORE: Climate Change Is Destroying Our Planet And Our Mental Health, Global Study Finds

Only Queensland has a framework for "exploring not only the impacts of climate change on health and well being but also gaps and barriers to adaptation, opportunities and co-benefits, and pathways to respond, in addition to the particulars of the plan itself", the report noted.

It noted a link between hotter temperatures and suicide, as well as an increase in the rate of domestic violence.

The report also said that all three tiers of government -- local, state and federal -- have an obligation to commit to climate change adaptation planning.

Contact the author khill@networkten.com.au