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Psychological Toll of The Climate Crisis

It’s easy enough to see the damaging physical effects of climate change on communities and ecosystems directly impacted by fires, floods, droughts, and super storms. Less visible is the psychological toll of experiencing a slow-motion train wreck—a toll especially felt by young people, who are aware their futures are at stake. What is the toll? How might we understand it? And what can we do about it? I offer some tentative answers.1

Our understanding is in an embryonic stage. Considerable attention has been devoted to the topic recently, with articles appearing in various outlets of the popular press, in discussions and suggestions within professional mental health organizations, and insights and advice offered by therapists and others who have some experience with the issue in various ways. The psychological toll also cuts across many mental health issues making it difficult to encapsulate.

Demographics of the Climate Crisis

Young people. A remarkable survey of over 10,000 young people between the ages of 16 to 25, from 10 countries, across 6 continents, documents the anxiety, distress, and anguish felt across the entire globe: 75% feel the future is frightening; 56% believe humanity is doomed; that their government is failing young people (65%), lies to them about the impact of what they are doing (64%), and is betraying them and future generations (58%). These reactions are more intense in developing countries, where the Climate Crisis is more acutely experienced. Needless to say, young people are angry about their lack of power and disillusioned with authority.

Childbearing age. Those with children or contemplating having children must face a climate-impacted future, which even in the best of estimates looks harrowing, and decide if they want to bring a child into the world that awaits them. Among those who already have children, 1/3 report that the climate crisis is the reason for choosing to have fewer children. Birthstrike and #NoFutureChildren are two social media movements by those who do not have children, and pledging not to—with considerable anger, sorrow, sadness and despair.

Parents and grandparents. The research is sparse for these cohorts, but informal conversations and reports indicate that when the Climate Crisis is appreciated, the consequences for their children and grandchildren are a source of deep concern. Of course, the caveat that “the crisis need be appreciated” is the critical fact determining whether anyone has any concern at all. Survey results over the past 6 years suggest that a significant and growing number of Americans are aware and concerned about the Climate Crisis.

Factors Influencing Mental Health

Several factors influence the mental health impact of the Climate Crisis:

  • Whether the climate events are acute (e.g., flooding, fires, and super storms ) or chronic (e.g., drought, rising sea levels, and significant changes in normal climate patterns).
  • If exposure is direct (e.g., loss of food water, shelter, loved ones), indirect (e.g., displacement, disruption of food, electric, and water systems, loss of employment), or vicarious (e.g., observing others, media reports).
  • Vulnerability risk factors including previous trauma and mental health issues, socioeconomic inequities, age (older adults and young children are more vulnerable), and gender (girls and women are more at risk).

Much more research exists for acute events with both direct and indirect exposure. As you might imagine, the impact is profound. Basic survival needs demand immediate attention: food, water, shelter, health care, safety. The mental health consequences span the entire range of human misery and suffering—trauma, grief, depression, impulsive and self-destructive behavior, suicide, substance abuse, etc., etc.—and are often long-lasting.

Evidence for chronic climate events with direct and indirect exposure also suggests a similarly wide range of mental health reverberations, but the incidence may likely be considerably less than acute events. Less systematic research exists for vicariously experienced climate events, but a considerable and growing number of clinical reports, observations, and discussions point to similar mental health outcomes.

What’s in a Name?

What we call something, the name we use, allows us to grasp and understand it, and potentiates possible responses. Is something dirt? Or soil? Is something garbage? Or compost? The first term in each pair suggests filth; something revolting demanding disposal. The second term signifies regeneration; something to be prized and used. Important climate consequences result from which of the pair we choose to use. Same, too, for how we choose to talk about climate-crisis mental health outcomes.

Eco-anxiety and climate anxiety are oft used names, especially within American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations. Anxiety is the key word as it positions the experience within the possible domain of anxiety disorders. Indeed, there are some who suggest that it might, at some point, be considered for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association; the Manual that defines what is to be considered a legitimate mental disorder.

The paradigm of disorders inadequately addresses the mental health consequences of the Climate Crisis because the problem is of a different kind, requiring a new framework for understanding and responding. The disorders approach presumes the difficulties reside within the individual, that a disorder is an abnormality or pathology likely of biological origin, and that treatment involves eliminating the pathology within the individual, often though medication. In addition, its use sometimes implies that eco-anxiety encompasses the entire psychological toll of the Climate Crisis.

The Climate Crisis is a global, communal experience caused by very real biosphere realities that pose a mortal danger to human life as well as many of our fellow terrestrial mates. Distress is an understandable response to this global existential threat. Resiliency, not cure, is required in the face of existing realities. The psychological toll also encompasses much more than anxiety. Finally, the pathogenetic model misleads about how we are to understand and respond to this toll: “What we are witnessing isn’t a tsunami of mental illness but a long overdue outbreak of  sanity”.2

Existential Threats, Debilitating Responses

The Climate Crisis poses existential challenges that haunt us:  
-“The Climate Crisis is so huge, and scope of individual responses so infinitesimally small, what can I possibly do that will make a difference”?  
“What if…??” “The future is so uncertain, so foreboding, I can’t plan, dream, hope.”

These challenges evoke a range of intense reactions: despair, depression, grief, anxiety, panic, suicide and so much more. A host of names have been coined to capture the many emotional responses provoked by the Climate Crisis, including terrafurie, eco-depression, climate trauma, environmental melancholia, solastalgia (nostalgia + desolation + longing for solace), and climate stress. Eco-anxiety also can be properly placed in this family of names that situate the causal locus outside the individual, in the Climate Crisis.

Some psychological difficulties, when they become debilitating, require comprehensive evaluation for proper care. The Climate Crisis may be one thread in a weave of factors that give rise to impairment, which also might include prior mental health issues, trauma history, interpersonal conflict, social injustices, medications, physical illness, etc. Professional help is required in these cases, but it is also important that the evaluation include assessment of the role the Climate Crisis might play in the difficulties.

Resiliency

Resiliency is the ability to adapt to challenging life circumstances—and even grow from them. The Climate Crisis threat is ongoing, requiring us to develop and maintain habits of mind, body, and behavior that foster wellbeing in the face of adversity.

The biggest obstacle to addressing the Climate Crisis is individual and collective denial. The sources of denial are many and the motivation for it is high. Some of the more common and alluring forms of denial include: reality is too disturbing and disruptive (oh boy, is this true!); minimizing the problem and misattributing the magnitude of our response (e.g., “I recycle, that should be enough”); resisting significant changes in values and behavior; prioritizing immediate over long term concerns; dismissing the problem because there is no direct experience of the consequences; ignoring data because it is too abstract and sources are questionable; and social norming (“My friends do/say this, so it must be true”).

“Action is the Antidote to Despair”3

Activism includes both external activism and internal activism for fostering resiliency. External activism is important because it empowers; we are making concrete contribution to addressing the Crisis, and it connects our actions with core values. However, if we become too obsessively focused on our goals, without attending to our internal needs and self-care, this can lead to depletion of our energies and burnout.

Internal Activism

Internal activism involves attention to our mind, body, and behavior. What follows are ways to foster resiliency. Each looks simple, but they are hard, often demanding new habits and routines of mind, body, and behavior. I have provided a Resiliency Resource Outline with further explanation, discussion, references and resources for the suggestions that that you can explore in more depth in this footnote.4 5

For the Mind
Validate experience. Not something wrong with us; not impaired, stupid. Acknowledge that the problem is a global one that everyone must face.
Identify what we can control and what we cannot. Focus on what we can control.
Attend to and counter negative “mind habits”.
Accept change.
Mindfulness. Shift from the mundane ways we engage the world to becoming aware of being alive, experiencing the presence of the world. Gratitude for this moment.
For the Body
Physical wellness. Eat healthy, sleep, exercise.
For Behavior
Connecting with others. The Climate Crisis is a communal, societal, and global experience, so it is important that we connect with social networks for support, understanding, validation, solidarity, inspiration. This can take many forms, from a small group of friends who share concerns, to online climate support cafes, to social involvement with community and environmental groups that foster personal connections and friendships.
Online resources can be very helpful.
Limit social media, with its sometimes negative influences on our state of mind.
Connect with nature, as a source of solace and rejuvenation.
Live in accordance with our values. Find ways to live meaningfully with full appreciation of the threat.
Individual Differences
Individuals differ in response to crisis and what may be most helpful. Self-awareness is important for effective internal activism. Developing habits, routines, and deliberate attention to mind, body, and behavior is HARD. It is an ongoing challenge, a marathon, not a single trial. We will fail. And fail again. Practice. Practice. Practice. Requires as much effort, diligence, and is as important as external action. Imperfectly, together, we unite, we change.

Hope

“Hope is a moral commitment.”6

Hope is essential for resiliency. We must have hope to carry on. Not the kind of hope prompted by a Pollyannaish belief that everything turns out for the best, which is a passive renunciation of reality and our role in influencing the future.

Hope, realistic hope, is forged in the face of adversity and challenges, sometimes in the face of overwhelming odds, to envision a better future; a future not brought about by ease and accident, but by sweat, toil, hardship, and sometimes blood, to “make it so” in the face of daunting obstacles. We must ask ourselves: “What gives us hope?” Sometimes it comes from others who inspire us. Martin Luther King offered hope, inspiration, and a motivating dream. The history of slavery, racial murder, violence, persecution, and soul-crushing humiliation can easily overwhelm and make such pronouncements of a dream seem misguided naïve shouts into the darkness. It is precisely why hope is a moral commitment. It is precisely what we need for The Climate Crisis.

What we are experiencing is a source of hope: “Climate anxiety may be the crucible through which humanity must pass to harness the energy and commitment that are needed for the lifesaving changes now required.” 7

  1. This was a presentation given to the Climate Action Now! meeting at the St. Louis Ethical Society, November 13, 2022.
  2. Graham Lawton, New Scientist, 2019
  3. Joan Baez
  4. Highly Recommend:

    • Doing What Matters in a Time of  Stress. This book addresses many of the resiliency strategies listed below. It is published by the World Health Organization, has been published in 25 languages, is presented in an easy to follow graphic text, and the strategies suggested are supported by decades of research. It can be downloaded for free: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240003927
    • Also, the book: “Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change’– Leslie Davenport.

    For the Mind:

    • Validate experience. Talk with others who understand this. See “”Connecting with others” below.
    • Identify what you can control and what not. https://psychcentral.com/blog/coping-with-what-you-cant-control
    • Attend to and counter negative “mind habits”: “It’s no use to try.” “Our lives are (My life is”) ruined.” “We are (I am ) doomed.” “I’m alone in this struggle.” “What I do never makes a difference.” “I’m crazy to be upset about this.” See “Doing What Matters in a Time of  Stress”. Also, https://keirbradycounseling.com/negative-thought-loop/
    • Accept change. https://www.wikihow.com/Accept-Change
    • Mindfulness. It is a shift in how we are experiencing the world that can be done anywhere. Shift from the mundane ways we engage the world to becoming aware of being alive, experiencing the presence of the world. Gratitude for this moment.  Practice, become part of daily routines. Mindful awareness as freeing ourselves from negative mind habits that “hook” us into a downward spiral of thoughts, and habitual/self-defeating stories we tell ourselves about ourselves or our lives. See “Doing What Matters in a Time of  Stress”. Also, free meditation apps: https://insighttimer.com/meditation-app . There are eco-themed meditations (e.g.: https://insighttimer.com/pub14452310/guided-meditations/resilient-as-a-tree ).

    For the Body:

    For Behavior:

4 Comments

  1. Mike Palmer

    Thank you for this thoughtful and pertinent analysis. I suspect that this issue is a major driver of our current social and political divide, with a generation in denial pitted against a generation experiencing existential dread.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      thank you, Mike, for your thoughtful comment. Yes, I agree, and the anger by younger people is understandable and justified.

  2. Edward Smith

    I love the internal activist ideas. The cited sources in footnotes 4&5 are an especially pragmatic help. Thank you for showing us the paths that lead to ways of saving our planet.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Ed, I appreciate your comments and am glad you found the post to be helpful.

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