Increasing numbers of adults and children around the world are experiencing climate-related distress. With more frequent and intense hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires, and heat waves, and associated deaths, traumas, and forced migration, it comes as no surprise that anxiety, fears and nagging uncertainties about the future are on the rise.
While there are no estimates of the proportion of Americans suffering climate distress, survey research has found that the “alarmed” segment of the American population – those who perceive climate change as an urgent threat and strongly support action – more than doubled from 11% to 26% between 2015 and 2020.
Suppressed climate distress ‘can feel like emotional constipation’
The emotions arising – worry, helplessness, anger, grief, despair – can feel overwhelming, disabling, pernicious. Whether consciously or not, many people aim to avoid or dismiss or squelch them. But these responses offer only temporary relief from a problem that won’t go away on its own.
Suppressed climate distress can feel like emotional constipation; it’s excruciatingly uncomfortable to remain arrested in a state of fear, worry, sadness, despair, anger, or agitation inside of our bodies. Yet it can be painful as well to bring these emotions to light, and difficult to put the experience into words. So how to begin?
The good news is that there are numerous support groups and creative ways to process climate anxiety, climate grief, and other related emotions. Community advocacy groups such as Citizens’ Climate Lobby, facilitated forums like climate cafes or Good Grief Network, religious or spiritual institutions, and interactive projects like Dear Tomorrow offer community, connection and opportunities to vocalize and express feelings and concerns.
Mood and behavioral changes may signal a need for help
But for people struggling to function in their daily lives – such as getting out of bed in the morning or focusing at work or school – seeking professional mental health support is especially important. Another sign that someone might need help is if their mood or behavior significantly changes: intense mood swings, agitation, restlessness, social avoidance, risky behaviors, increased drug/alcohol use. In some cases, people will initiate therapy on their own, but in others, they might not think they need help or may hesitate for other reasons. For those concerned about someone, approaching them in a non-judgmental way, and directing them to resources may be especially helpful.
Lise Van Susteren, MD, co-founder of Climate Psychiatry Alliance and author of Emotional Inflammation, acknowledges that initiating therapy comes with common fears and anxieties including “fear of exposure and fear of not finding a solution.” But on the flip side, she says, not talking about issues of great personal concern can feel “crushing to the spirit when confronted with the realities of climate change,” leaving one feeling alienated and alone.
Sharing private feelings with another person requires a degree of trust, safety, and commitment. Some people are accustomed to how therapy works, but others might feel ashamed to seek help or uncomfortable opening up to a “stranger,” even one professionally trained on such matters. Even after a therapist-client relationship is established, unpacking complex emotions takes time and energy, and sometimes it can feel worse before it feels better. However, there is much to be gained through a constructive therapy process: empathy, social connection, and the relief that arises from authentic emotional expression.
Mental health professionals as climate anxiety ‘first responders’
In a way, mental health professionals are the EMTs, the first responders in the psychological realm of the climate crisis. Just as they are trained to support clients coping or dealing with existential issues such as illness, aging, and death, they are equipped to support clients in working on feelings arising from the climate situation.
Climate distress – including eco-anxiety or grief or panic or PTSD or intense sadness that arises from the loss of place or home (termed “solastalgia”) – for many can be overwhelming, difficult to comprehend, helping to fuel a sense of helplessness or loneliness. But it’s also a perfectly rational and healthy response to a degraded, unpredictable, and at-risk world. As author Britt Wray and clinician Andrew Bryant note, a successful therapy experience can result in an empowering response involving emotional work along with active efforts in the world outside.
In April 2021, the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America, along with the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, launched a national database of Climate Aware Therapists to help connect the public to therapists who prioritize and recognize the impacts of climate change on mental health. Merritt Juliano, co-president of Climate Psychology Alliance of North America, describes the directory as a resource for people to “find mental health providers familiar with the multidimensional aspects of the climate crisis and its impacts on social and psychological well-being.” She points to the role of climate-aware therapists “to listen and validate a person’s thoughts, feelings and experiences rather than dismiss or pathologize them.” That is, climate distress is not a diagnosis but a response to how one feels adversely affected by real world events.
Van Susteren’s involvement in developing this resource was prompted by her receiving numerous calls from potential patients “desperate” to find psychiatrists or therapists sensitive to these issues. She said some patients felt invalidated or dismissed by other mental health professionals when they brought up their climate concerns.
Allowing one’s feelings to ‘surface into consciousness’
Indeed, a recent article reveals a concerning gap between the public’s desire to talk about climate distress, and therapists’ abilities to support them. While climate psychology is an emergent field, it is getting more thought and attention in the medical community as training programs and best practices are actively being developed. Most importantly, a client should be able to bring up the topic to an empathic audience and get the support that they need.
Climate aware therapists apply a range of approaches and tools, including their own theoretical orientations and treatment modalities, which they are familiar and comfortable with. Elizabeth Allured, also a co-president of Climate Psychology Alliance North America, points out that: “not everyone feels consciously distressed or brings up climate change in therapy. A climate-aware therapist holds in mind the larger environmental crisis we’re in, and allows feelings to surface into consciousness.”
Some people might feel reluctant to seek help, and it’s unfortunate that shame and stigma discourage many from doing so. But the truth is that many of us can benefit from some type of professional support: Just as a person seeks medical aid for a physical injury, they should be able to seek mental health support for emotional distress without judgment. Researchers have indicated that during the pandemic more and more Americans have accessed – and continue to access – therapy and counseling. Although every health care system has its own barriers to mental health treatment, such as wait lists and insurance-imposed limits on the number of sessions, in many communities, access to therapy can also be found through local hotlines and community clinics.
As climate psychologists will attest, we are living through an epoch of collective environmental trauma, and subsequent climate distress. Even for those among that increasingly shrinking number who are less-than-concerned, the distress of living in an increasingly unpredictable, hostile world will inevitably influence their daily lives. Acknowledging one’s feelings about climate change challenges, and talking about them not only benefits individuals and groups, but may spur broader climate engagement.
It’s sometimes said that when so much is at stake, so many must be involved. When we all participate in the conversation, to whatever extent we’re able, hope and connection bloom together.
Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a psychotherapist, writer, and art therapist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Robert Berley is a Seattle-based psychoanalytic psychologist and Adjunct Faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Washington.