Do you have apocalypse anxiety?
They aren’t writing songs about it -- at least not yet -- but the super storms, wildfires, riots and flooding, on top of the pandemic, life in lockdown and the steady drip-drip of bad news about jobs and the economy has given rise to a state of near-constant low-key dread, which has a name. Apocalypse anxiety.
While the term is new, the feeling isn’t . Every few decades, the human race becomes convinced that its world is ending. There is usually a good reason: war, Cold War, nuclear war, bio-weaponry, holocausts, terrorism, climate change, economic meltdowns,and pandemics.
This time, it comes from the sense that overlapping clouds of threat — deaths in the hundreds of thousands, tumbling GDP numbers, more waves of the disease and new illnesses, loneliness and isolation — are looming over all of us; that life, work, and play will never be the same again.
The dread is exacerbated by a behaviour captured by another recent term -- doomsurfing or doomscrolling on social media, addictive stream of little nuggets, overwhelmingly made up of terrible news.
“The element of intensifying natural disaster — as opposed to disasters such as war and terrorism, caused directly by man — is making this a more anxiety-inducing time for us. While humans are an incredibly adaptable species, it’s becoming clear that droughts, forest fires, flooding and intensified storms will be our new normal,” says Laura Schmidt, founding director of the Good Grief Network, a US-based non-profit that specialises in outreach and support for those with eco-anxiety. For Schmidt, the virus is an extension of that. “We also know that vector-borne illnesses and viruses are increasingly probable as we continue to encroach on wildlife habitat. Looking into the future causes a tremendous amount of anxiety, fear, and grief for many people who are paying attention to our interlinked biosphere, social and climate crises.”
Neither eco-anxiety nor apocalypse anxiety has been recognised as a medical condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But in 2017, a report by the American Psychiatric Association described the first as a source of feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration caused by “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future”.
That’s what apocalypse anxiety feel like. People never prone to anxiety are waking up in the middle of the night unable to breathe. Some are becoming obsessed with numbers (Covid dashboards abound; this newspaper runs one of the most popular ones); others are refusing to acknowledge them altogether.
The overwhelming sense is one of helplessness. It’s not just that something is happening; it’s that it’s part of a chain you have no control over, and almost everyone is vulnerable.
“We’ve come to see our current problems as being so much bigger than eco-anxiety and climate grief. It’s the grief of waking up to the severity of our predicament as familiar life-supporting systems, both natural and man-made, are seen to quake,” Schmidt says.
But we will survive. Humankind was made to.