The Surprising Connection Between Eco-Anxiety and Loneliness
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Recent research shows that the unfolding crises in climate change and social isolation may actually be connected.
By James Arnott and Shannon Stirone
The climate crisis isn’t just altering our physical environments. It could even be transforming our minds and how we connect to each other.
Many people are experiencing escalating anxiety levels about the potential for extreme weather events and the safety of their homes, property, and livelihoods. Still more are numbed by general ennui about how the planet and our existence are being fundamentally altered. And evidence is growing that in addition to altering our environment, the climate crisis could be transforming our minds.
“Climate change is inside us,” said Clayton Aldern, a neuroscientist and author of the forthcoming “The Weight of Nature: How a Changing Climate Changes Our Brains,” one of a number of recent books and studies that delve into how climate change affects our brains, our mental health, and the connections we make with each other.
A connection to loneliness
Researchers are finding that the climate crisis is unfolding alongside crises in mental health and social isolation — and suggest some striking ways these issues may be intertwined. The collective stress, fears, and isolation caused by climate-related events, dubbed eco-anxiety, could be making people more lonely, in turn hurting health, relationships, and collective ability to act.
“When I hear ‘loneliness,’ I think about disconnection,” Aldern said by email. “And climate change is profoundly good at spurring disconnect. It ruptures place bonds; it corrupts language; through secondary vectors, it prompts sociopolitical division. These are all manners in which a changing environment can separate people from one another.”
In late 2022, two health researchers from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, André Hajek and Hans-Helmut König, reported an association between climate anxiety and perceived social isolation. They surveyed over 3,000 people living in Germany, using questions designed to test levels of loneliness, isolation, and climate anxiety. Respondents also provided demographic and lifestyle details, such as age, gender, location, and alcohol/smoking habits. When these factors are included, the survey data analysis found an association between climate anxiety and both loneliness and social isolation. Higher levels of loneliness and isolation were significantly associated with higher levels of climate anxiety for the overall population and for those between the ages of 18 and 64.
A threat to mental health
The German study didn’t suggest causality, but there are growing signs that climate change hurts mental health.
“Climate change acts far more directly on brain health than I think we’ve broadly come to appreciate,” Aldern said. “There’s likely a serotonin-mediated effect of temperature deviations on violent behavior. People are also less able to think critically at higher temperatures — your prefrontal cortex becomes more isolated from the rest of your brain — which means we’re not as good at, say, taking the SAT or performing other cognitive tasks. Global environmental changes are bolstering the success of brain-disease vectors like mosquitoes and cyanobacteria; extreme weather can provoke PTSD; shifting climatic baselines bear on the brain’s memory systems.”
People who feel connected are more likely to take action
Meanwhile, several recent studies suggest that the impacts of loneliness and social disconnection may have direct relevance for individual perceptions and actions on climate change.
Australian psychologists Madelin Duong and Pamela Pensini of Monash University examined the relationship between connectedness and pro-environmental behavior, or actions an individual may take to try to minimize or reverse negative impacts on the environment. Their work, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, draws on an online survey of 632 Australian adults who self-rated their connectedness to their community, nation, all humanity, and nature. Respondents also answered 22 questions about whether they had performed various kinds of pro-environmental behaviors in the previous six months as well as 10 items aimed at understanding respondents’ underlying orientation toward “prosocial behaviors.” For instance, one item read, “Having a lot of money is not important to me.”
Based on the responses, the authors constructed a statistical model to predict the likelihood of an individual performing pro-environmental behaviors. They found that prosocial tendencies, along with connectedness to nature, community, and humanity, are significant positive predictors; that is, the more self-reported feeling of connectedness, the higher the probability that a respondent would have reported pro-environmental behaviors. Connectedness to nature was the largest positive predictor, but connectedness to community was also significant. Interestingly, connection to nation was shown to be a negative predictor, even though it was positively associated with prosocial behavior.
This study reinforces an intuition many environmental advocates may already hold — that a meaningful connection to community or nature provides individuals with a compelling sense of relevance or motivation to act and that action can create a cycle of connection to others.
And ultimately, how individuals connect to their community affects how people are impacted by and recover from natural, or increasingly human-made, climate disasters. A recent U.S. study in Environment International led by P. Grace Tee Lewis of the environmental group Environmental Defense Fund makes explicit the social and community factors that shape widely varying levels of climate vulnerabilities in the United States. That paper offered a new U.S. Climate Vulnerability Index, which, building on prior measures of social vulnerability, explicitly considered how variables like socioeconomic status, family structure, and local infrastructure shape how communities experience the physical impacts of a disaster.
Aldern says the latest studies are just the beginning of research into links between climate change, mental health, and social action.
“Just as we’ve seen the notion of climate anxiety enter the mainstream in a fairly ubiquitous manner over the past few years, I suspect we’re going to see a similar shift in awareness about the relationships between climate change and brain health,” he said. “I’m excited to find ourselves at the edge of this frontier of knowledge. It’s a braid of research that feels relatively new, and I look forward to this conversation becoming a part of the popular imagination. I think that’ll only quicken our addressing of the climate crisis.”
James Arnott is Executive Director of the Aspen Global Change Institute, and Shannon Stirone is Managing Editor at Energy Innovation Policy and Technology LLC®.
This article by James Arnott and Shannon Stirone was originally published on Yale Climate Connections. It is republished here as part of the global journalism collaboration Covering Climate Now.