Wellness in a World On Fire: Therapy Tackles Climate Change

Published on: 11 Jan 2021
climate anxiety illustration

Illustration by Derek Abella

The boy spoke of a crocodile. It was the size of a continent, crawling all over the earth. “It had to keep eating and eating. It would never stop, but would never have eaten enough,” he said. “And you could smell its dying flesh as it still ate.”

The 10-year-old was speaking to Caroline Hickman, a therapist who specializes in the role of the climate and ecological crises on our mental health, and a member of the U.K.-based Climate Psychology Alliance’s Executive Committee. She was interviewing children across England and the world about their views on climate change. Before their interview, Hickman writes in a research paper, the boy’s father told her his son probably wouldn’t have much to say about the topic. As they spoke, however, the child’s sophisticated wisdom surfaced with the image of the crocodile, a stand-in for the consumptive reality of the carbon-based global economy. 

We all know the story: fuelled by the burning of fossil fuels, the past 200 years of human history have seen unprecedented economic growth, especially for the wealthy few. Yet this same engine of growth — often, in the form of literal internal combustion engines — is also powering the planet’s destruction. 

Earth’s climate warmed an average of two degrees Farenheit between 1880 and today. Two-thirds of that warming has occurred since 1975. Today, polar ice caps are melting six times faster than they were in the 1990s. In the next thirty years, these changes will occur even more quickly, with some American cities projected to see an increase of five degrees Fahrenheit in peak summer temperatures by 2015. This warming will likely be accompanied by increasingly intense storms; a .13 inch yearly rise in sea levels that will threaten millions of people living in the world’s islands, coastal, and low lying lands; and increased heat waves that have already taken hundreds of thousands of human lives

Scientists greet us with increasingly urgent warnings: unless we take drastic action, human civilization as we know it will change unfathomably by the end of this century. Yet global political and corporate leadership remains woefully stalled. Meanwhile, most everyday people hardly know where to begin addressing such a profound and fast-approaching calamity. 

Climate change is more than a policy or technological challenge. It’s also a moral and emotional one. When contemplating the effects of climate change, we are forced to ask: how do we emotionally process a transformation that threatens everything we have ever known?

Some of us choose to deny that climate change is happening altogether. Many of us, meanwhile, struggle in the midst of more acute climate-related trauma: displaced from our homes by a storm or a forest fire; impoverished or famished due to flooding; even mourning loved ones lost to COVID-19, which in itself is related to the rapid decline in biodiversity. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle, ignoring the problem except for brief flares of terror or a crackle of background anxiety. 

“We’re noticing the flowers are coming up earlier, and that’s unnerving to us, it’s strange, it’s a dark kind of surrealness,” said Britt Wray, an author, broadcaster, and researcher who studies the relationship between mental health and the climate crisis. Yet to take these observations to their natural conclusion, said Wray, is too intense for most of us. “Many people can imagine the very worst outcome: near-term societal collapse or human extinction.”

Over the past few years, a group of therapists and researchers have been developing a new branch of psychological research and practice to help us contend with this crisis. Called climate-aware therapy, its aim is to support people in confronting, processing, and living with and through the nearly-incomprehensible reality of the climate emergency. In doing so, therapists say, they hope to inspire us all to contend with the reality of climate change and its deep relationship to racial and economic exploitation — and, hopefully, spur us to action in order to, just maybe, secure the future of our planet. 

“The future became shattered”: The Age of Eco-Anxiety

It can begin with crawling nervousness or heaviness in your stomach. Sometimes, it’s a stab of horror. For Britt Wray, the fear, worry, and sadness over climate change was intense and lasted for several years. “I needed to figure out what was going on, why I had all this existential terror,” said Wray. That set her researching her current interest: eco-anxiety and eco-grief, the anxiety and sadness we feel when we consider the current and future impacts of the climate crisis.

We know climate change affects the physical well-being of our planet and bodies, in the form of increased extreme weather, agricultural failure, and extreme heat, to name just a few. But it also affects our psychological, social, and spiritual wellness. 

Elizabeth Allured, a climate-aware therapist, professor, and co-president of the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America, identifies two main sources of emotional distress related to climate change. The first is acute stress caused by climate-related trauma. This can be the result of one intense event, like a hurricane, but it can also be the result of chronic climate-related stress over time, like the effects of urban overheating. In the long term, climate-related displacement from a homeland, income source, or traditional occupation can create deep grief and lead to a loss of meaning, identity, and community. These events can lead to substance use, PTSD, depression, and chronic anxiety. 

The second kind of climate-related stress is what Allured calls “pre-traumatic stress:” the worry we feel when we consider the potential future impacts of climate change. This may take the form of what climate-aware therapists call “eco-anxiety,” or a persistent worry about the well-being of the planet and life. Eco-anxiety can be a lower-level, constant background anxiety or unease that builds over time. But it can also be an experience of profound distress. “Often it’s about the existential terror that sets in when people have their full awakening to the climate data,” Wray said. “Many people recount having this moment when they realize that their entire sense of themselves and the future became shattered.”

Another common feeling is eco-grief, which Wray describes as mourning for what is already lost, and what might be lost in the future, as a result of climate change. We may feel eco-grief about the extinction of animal or plant species, the perishing of coral reefs, the way flooding has affected our community, or about a future without access to our homeland. 

Many people who experience eco-anxiety must also deal with the secondary pain of having loved ones deny the seriousness of their feelings, said Hickman. This is particularly a problem for Hickman’s younger clients, many of whom express disappointment in an older generation that has not addressed the climate crisis head-on. “You have the pain of not feeling connected to the people around you because they don’t empathize or understand. So they blame you, they silence you,” Hickman said. 

“We are the half being killed off”: Climate Change And Inequality

For some, eco-anxiety manifests as fear of future environmental calamity. But for many of those living in the Global South, and for Black, indigenous, and other people of color, as well as low-income people living in the Global North, the reality of climate catastrophe is occurring now. 

“When you think about who gets hit the hardest — whether it’s a storm, sea level rise, flooding, drought, lack of access to water, extreme heat — it is always, unfortunately, those communities that live in environments that are really hazardous to their health,” said Jalonne L. White-Newsome, senior program officer at the Kresge Foundation and an academic who has researched the link between climate change and health inequity. 

Ironically, it’s often those who contribute the least to climate change who suffer the most. Consider the relationship between climate change and global inequality. The United States contains only 4% of the world’s population, but is responsible for 12% of the world’s current greenhouse gas emissions. If you look at the cumulative impact since 1750, the United States has contributed almost double the amount of carbon into the atmosphere of any other country. Meanwhile, people are experiencing some of the most extreme effects of climate change in places like the Maldives, an island nation which is responsible for only .004% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, but which is facing imminent destruction due to sea level rise

When Hickman interviewed children in the Maldives about climate change, they articulated the aching inequality of their experience. “Climate change is like Thanos in The Avengers End Game, whose ideology is to kill off half the planet so the other half can thrive,” one child said. “Trouble is, we are the half being killed off.” 

In the United States, Black, indigenous, and Latinx Americans are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than white Americans, as they already experience significantly degraded air quality and lack the wealth needed to rebuild securely after disasters.

White-Newsome has witnessed this first hand. She began researching climate change when she was caring for her grandparents in Detroit, and noticed the intense summer heat. Her work demonstrated the devastating effect rising summer temperatures were having on residents of poorly weatherized homes in low-income neighborhoods. “I was really struck and stunned at the lack of adaptation that our city, the city of Detroit, was undergoing to really deal with the impacts of climate change,” White-Newsome said. 

More than a decade later, White-Newsome is still contending with climate change’s disproportionate impact on marginalized communities, both in her research and her family. In 2019, her parents, who live in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Detroit, experienced three incidents of storm-related flooding in their basement. Researchers say that increased rainfall and flooding in Detroit is a likely result of climate change; many Detroit residents blame the city for a lack of proactive water management. White-Newsome points to historic racist practices like redlining to explain ongoing inequality in climate response. 

White-Newsome’s parents lost a 60-year-old family bible in the flood, a piece of tangible heritage they can’t get back. They’ve also lost time, energy, money, and their sense of security in trying to get the city to make water infrastructure repairs. “It’s all these pieces: Loss of identity. Loss of community. Loss of stuff. Loss of peace. Loss of income,” White-Newsome said. “Those repeated incidents of trauma cause stress, and stress kills — particularly in African American people.” 

Because of this, White-Newsome stresses the need to simultaneously address climate change and racial injustice. “When you talk about achieving justice and racial equity, it’s really addressing the sources and the root causes of the problem, which is really not climate change,” said White-Newsome. “It’s institutional, structural racism.”

“We’re sleepwalking into disaster”: The Psychology of Climate Denial

Not everyone shares White-Newsome’s urgency in addressing the intertwined evils of climate change and racism. As of 2019, researchers estimated that the top five oil and gas companies invested $200 million a year in attempting to block policies addressing human-caused climate change. This lobbying has done incalculable damage on public efforts to ameliorate the worst effects of climate disaster. Yet, at very least, thes companies’ hold on public opinion seems to be waning: in 2019, 75% of Americans agreed that humans caused climate change.

Overt denial isn’t the only way human beings avoid confronting the enormity of what we are doing to our planet. The scale of climate crisis is incomprehensibly vast, taking place at a planetary level and effecting all human beings. At the same time, we can see its effects in our daily lives: forest fires, warmer winters, more storms. Because of the enormity of the problem, many of us feel powerless, as the daily routines of our lives seem incompatible with a carbon-free future. 

One way we deal with this overwhelming tension, according to climate-aware therapists, is through emotional numbing. We may avoid thinking of climate change, or we may think about it for a moment but then push the thought away. “It’s a disavowal which is a way of protecting against the full horror, and the terror, and the enormity,” said Hickman. “Meanwhile, we’re sleepwalking into disaster.” This avoidance can lead to further paralysis and inaction, when the world desperately needs massive, decisive action. 

Therapists, too, can succumb to this avoidance. Therapists who are not climate-aware, or who have not deeply introspected on their feelings about climate change, may feel overwhelmed when clients bring it up, and may deny clients’ feelings and needs. This can lead to further distress and isolation for people who seek therapy for help dealing with eco-anxiety and climate-related trauma, said Allured. “We need each other to really be able to tolerate thinking about this.”

“The gift of uncertainty”: Seeking Climate-Aware Support 

When Allured became a therapist, she noticed a widespread reluctance from other therapists around addressing climate change head-on. “I think many clinicians were just feeling too overwhelmed by the topic to address it,” she said. That’s a problem for people seeking therapy to process eco-anxiety. 

“Many therapists who are not explicitly climate-aware have told people who go in for help with eco-distress, ‘Well, let’s look at your thoughts around that. Oh, that’s catastrophic thinking,’” Wray said. But climate change is very real — and worrying about it is a sign of sensitivity and awareness. “It’s a healthy emotional response,” Hickman said. 

In contrast to conventional therapeutic models, which tend to interpret human emotions through an individualistic, biological or psychological lens, climate-aware therapy stresses the importance of human beings’ connections to our environment, and the interrelation of climate, inequality, and mental health. “Climate crisis-aware psychotherapy names this as a whole systemic problem which is political, which is about injustice,” Hickman said. 

Rather than treat eco-anxiety as a disorder, many climate-aware therapists encourage clients to reframe it as an experience of profound empathy. It’s a refusal to shut the self away from the suffering of the natural world and fellow human beings. “You’re connected to their vulnerability and so it’s actually a sign of your humanity,” said Wray. Rather than attempting to rid their clients of eco-anxiety, climate-aware therapists may instead support them in developing coping skills so they can remain aware without being overwhelmed. 

Climate-aware therapists also emphasize eco-anxiety as an inspiration toward meaningful action. “It makes me crazy when people talk about “curing eco anxiety” or “fixing eco anxiety.” I don’t want to cure it. I want everyone in the world to feel it,” Hickman said. “If everybody felt this way we’d be acting on it immediately.”

While climate-aware therapy has been profoundly useful for some, it remains out of reach of the majority of people contending with the trauma of environmental degradation. “Therapy costs money. It tends to be a rather enfranchised client who goes and seeks it out — typically a white, middle-class person with a university education,” Wray said. This ironically leaves those most affected,low-income people of color in the U.S. and the Global South — unable to access the mental health resources that could be vital in supporting their well-being. Even when they can access therapy, the overwhelming whiteness of the field — in 2015, 86% of U.S. psychologists were white — can leave people of color feeling alienated and unseen. 

Yet marginalized people have always found strength in community support, whether that be in family, spirituality, or grassroots mental health practices. “What I’ve tried to really think about and do and support is: what are the ways that communities can begin to support their own resiliency?” White-Newsome said. 

At best, climate-aware therapy, and other forms of community support, can help us move from what Wray calls “the terror of uncertainty” to “the gift of uncertainty.” That, in these terms, can enable us to see possibility where we once only saw doom. “You find the resilience tools, you find ways to stretch yourself and your window of tolerance, so to speak,” said Wray. “And then you imagine new futures.” 

“I wouldn’t be in this work if I didn’t have hope”: Mourn, Then Activate 

Addressing climate change requires two kinds of activism — the kind that happens in the world, and the kind that happens in our hearts. It’s only when we explore, process, and ultimately accept our feelings about climate change that we can take action from a grounded and deliberate place. “There’s a natural progression that leads to action, when you’re fully aware and you’re not in the immediate shock,” Allured said. 

By taking collective action, not just around climate change but also around the racial, economic, and gender inequalities that underlie it, we create our own reason for hope. This action can look like many things: talking to your loved ones about their feelings about climate change; joining a neighborhood group advocating for better flood protections; pushing for fossil fuel divestment. For some grassroots groups White-Newsome works with, it looks like a network of restoration parks, community-based green spaces that both help to relieve the effects of urban heat islands, and give locals somewhere to more safely be together during the pandemic. 

Accepting the reality of climate change means coming to terms with the fact that, more likely than not, the next few centuries of human life will look unrecognizable to us. It means confronting the fact that human beings might not continue to exist at all. 

Yet the mental health workers and researchers who work on climate change every day have found ways to retain their faith in human beings. “Life is life, and I’m not too Pollyanna-ish, but I wouldn’t be in this work and this space for this long if I didn’t have hope,” said White-Newsome.

For Hickman, living in climate awareness is a balancing act between the horror of environmental degradation and the hope of human empathy; between the gift of the current moment and the tenuous blessing of the future. “It’s about embracing the reality of what we’re in spiritually, soulfully, psychologically,” said Hickman. ““Yes, I’m here now. So what do I do?’”

Exercises

Climate change is a huge and often terrifying topic, but it is possible to confront the reality of environmental degradation with deep awareness. Here is some advice from the experts I interviewed for this piece.

Reflect on your eco-anxiety

Allured recommends journaling about how you are feeling about the climate, then taking some space to brainstorm your coping skills: 

  • How have you dealt with adversity in the past? 
  • Who in your life is supportive? 
  • What activities help you remain calm? 

“Enlarge on those supports — whether it’s walking in nature, or staying in touch with family,” Allured said.

If you’re feeling your anxiety about climate change spiral out of control, Allured recommends focusing on the current moment. “Start by noticing what’s okay right now,” she said. That might mean focusing on your comfortably full belly, or the pleasant feeling of sun, or your affection for your cat. 

Ask nature

Hickman considers herself an eco-therapist, meaning she emphasizes the relationship between the environmental climate, and our inner emotional climate. She encourages her clients to practice deep listening to their own intuition and to the natural world. 

If you’re feeling conflicted about climate change, Hickman recommends finding a tree. “I want you to sit with your back against the tree and ask the tree what to do,” Hickman said. “Get advice from the tree. You’re not in this alone. You’re in it with the tree. You’re in it with your dog.” Notice how the leaves look; notice how they move in the breeze and whether the tree seems to need water.

The point is to begin to expand your awareness into the world, and to build your relationship with the environment that many human beings have alienated ourselves from. Rather than giving into either panic or apathy, “The reality is in the middle:the uncertainty, the vulnerability, the existential horror and beauty of what it’s like to live in a changing world,” said Hickman. “To have some wonder in the world as it changes.”

Seek support

Wray, and many people she has interviewed, have struggled with eco-anxiety. For many of them, the feeling got better with time. Another thing that helped, besides time: community. Another thing that helped, besides time: community. Wray suggests joining a climate support group, finding a climate-aware therapist, or simply connecting with friends who also care about climate change. “Finding solidarity and community is a real balm,” she said.

Also take time to invest in your greatest source of support: yourself. “Make sure that you’re taking care of yourself,” said White-Newsome. “Whatever you need to do, whatever outlets, whatever therapy, whatever way you can take care of your mental and physical well-being is super important.”

Take action

Climate change is such a big issue, it can be difficult to know where to start taking action. White-Newsome recommends showing up for all kinds of justice, especially racial justice, in your interpersonal relationships — especially if you have racial privilege. “I encourage all of my white brothers and sisters to be true allies,” said White-Newsome. “Speak up and speak out.” 

White-Newsome also recommends learning more about climate and environmental struggles in your community. Ask yourself: “How is climate change impacting my community? Do I know what my air quality is? Do we have buses that run on renewable energy versus diesel? Do I have electricity bills that are out of control?” Zero in on the issue that most speaks to you — then join a local group working on that issue. 

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