For Reegan Jungkind, it’s the panic rather than smoky air that’s making it difficult to take full breaths. She’s suddenly started getting headaches and her hands have been shaking for what she thinks has been at least a year.
Jungkind, 21, says what she used to think of as “eco-anxiety” is now more like eco-panic.
“It’s something that is soul-crushing, like, I just feel the entire weight of the world on my shoulders all the time,” she said.
Originally from Hay River, N.W.T., Jungkind now lives in Edmonton during the school year and Yellowknife in the summer. Two weeks ago, she was visiting family in Hay River when the town issued an evacuation order because of nearby wildfires.
Courtney Howard is an emergency room doctor in Yellowknife and an expert on how climate change impacts health.
She says there’s a spectrum of ecologically related emotions to describe people’s feelings about the Earth. She describes eco-worry as concern about what’s currently happening to the planet, and what may happen in the future.
There’s also ecological anger, and grief about environmental injustices and loss.
In what N.W.T. officials are calling an unprecedented wildfire season, along with news of natural disasters across the globe, it’s normal, Howard says, to feel an increased sense of anxiety.
“These are normal responses to a real threat,” she said.
Jungkind says her family arrived safely in Fairview, Alta., after leaving Hay River, but she worries for her family and especially her young cousins who have now had to leave their community three times in two years. Hay River was evacuated earlier this year in May because of fire as well, and also last year due to flooding.
“You would never want a four-year-old child to know what it means to have to leave their homes because of a forest fire,” Jungkind said.
Among those most likely to struggle with anxiety related to the environment are those who live close to the land, climate scientists who interact with the data, and youth, Howard said.
“On the whole, a lot of people are feeling real worry,” she said.
To manage those feelings, Howard suggests people take care of themselves with proper sleep, diet and exercise habits, connect with community, and show themselves some grace.
“Cry if you need to cry, hug your loved ones, go outside and yell if you need to. Whatever it is to help you at this moment come to a place of some emotional peace.”
William Gagnon is a climate activist in Yellowknife who has experience running workshops on eco-worry and how to manage it. For him, the feelings manifest as chest and stomach pain — but he says they can be different for everyone.
He said often people can get caught up feeling overwhelmed and helpless.
“But what I learned is that action alleviates anxiety,” he said.
“So if you’re stressed financially, you make a budget … If you’re stressed about climate change, then you also make a plan in your head.”
For Gagnon, that drove him to pursue a master’s degree in bioresource engineering on carbon capture and storage, but he says there are other, simpler ways to take action, such as by composting or choosing alternatives to driving.
“All climate solutions are good solutions and perfection is the enemy of the good, so don’t beat yourself,” he said.
Jungkind suggests that people who experience eco-worry should stay informed.
“Get as much information as you can from everybody, not just the internet, but from elders, from community members, from your people, from the government — as much information as you possibly can about everything,” she said.
“And if you get all of that information and you’re like, ‘I’m upset about this,’ then that’s the next step, is getting involved.”