Here's what living under the threat of extinction is doing to our brains
Feelings of anxiety and dread over climate change are not uncommon and as global warming continues to worsen, the toll that it’s taking on our mind is likely getting worse too.
From the ongoing pandemic to the atomic fear associated with the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, modern humanity is no stranger to living under the threat of large scale calamitous events.
But while other dangers have had defined end points where things will go back to ‘normal’, climate change has all of humanity living under the constant threat of eventual extinction.
What is living under this constant and ever-increasing threat to our way of life doing to our brains?
A survey by Gumtree found that, of 2,000 British participants, 74% said they feel climate anxiety. This anxiety is particularly strong among 18-24-year-olds, with 51% saying they felt they weren’t doing enough to be sustainable.
A relatively new branch of the mental health profession focuses on the impact climate change is having on our mental health and helps people cope.
Broadcaster and author Britt Wray has a PHD in science communication and is currently writing a book on the mental health impacts of climate change. She tells us ecoanxiety is ‘a kind of trauma that threatens our ability to feel safe in the world’.
‘It is a kind of existential pressure,’ she says. ‘It can manifest in many different ways, from very severe and chronic distress to fleeting feelings of worry and overwhelm that one cycles through.
‘It can affect one’s personal relationships, their ability to sleep or work, and the decisions one makes, like whether or not to have a child, or where to move to (in order to get out of the way of extreme weather events, like recurring wildfires, for example), what food to buy, and how to get around (no more flying or only electric cars).’
Seattle-based therapist Andrew Bryant manages a site called Climate & Mind, which seeks to ‘explore how climate change impacts our thoughts, emotions, and behavior’. He tells us: ‘Everyone, I think, experiences [climate anxiety] differently. For some it can be nervous avoidance; for others it can be manic action that can lead to burn-out.
‘Others experience it more as a depression about the world, a hopelessness and sense of defeat. Others get caught up in the news cycle and social media, constantly checking for the next piece of terrible news about the planet.
‘Many feel guilty for existing, for not doing more, for having kids, and so on. And many of us are simply in denial, which I think takes a lot of mental energy in itself.’
Counselling Directory member and eco-psychotherapist Tim McLoughlin tells us: ‘There seems to be a thread of powerlessness in clients who present as being the most anxious.
‘When someone feels powerless to stop what looks to be an impending catastrophe this arouses significant anxiety.
‘Some will become motivated to “do their bit” to help the situation. Though at first, this might seem laudable, it can lead to an even greater sense of frustration when they perceive others, including large corporations, not doing enough.
‘Some clients dread, almost continually, a so-called “tipping point” which they view as signalling impending disaster and causes a background anxiety over which they feel they have little control.
‘The size of the problem seems to affect some people differently. Some are able to “bracket” their worries but readily talk about it as they are aware that, like an spp, it is running in the back of their minds all the time.
‘Others, who might choose to become more active in supporting green causes, often find the political aspects both cathartic and a source of camaraderie so that their feelings are useful and shared with many others in their work or social network.
‘To some, there is a real sense of disassociation. There is an unwillingness to engage with the issue, due to the sheer enormity of it and the existential threat it presents. This can sometimes manifest in a psychological shrugging of the shoulders, which can appear dismissive, though is perhaps more likely to be a defensive positioning.’
Britt, who also runs a newsletter all about ‘staying sane in the climate crisis’, tells us that ecoanxiety isn’t a disorder as much as an ‘appropriate type of distress’ given the current situation.
Counselling Directory member Kate Graham agrees, saying: ‘The challenge for our mental health is that while climate change anxiety is similar to other forms of anxiety, in terms of compulsive worrying, feeling powerless, frustrated and depressed, it is actually very different.
‘Climate change is real, so while a troubled childhood, or greater sensitivity might increase levels of anxiety, they aren’t the cause of it: climate change cannot be argued away. For young people in particular this can lead to depression, despair, cynicism and apathy.
‘In fact feeling worried about climate change is essentially a positive, healthy thing to do. It takes courage to come out from the relative safety of denial to be willing to make contact with this very difficult reality. However some of us do find it harder than others to cope with such an apparently overwhelming fear.’
Andrew confesses to us that he experiences climate dread himself, but it’s still hard to know exactly how many people suffer from ecoanxiety.
He says: ‘I am hoping there are people doing research on that as we speak, because it would be great to know. According to the Yale Program on Climate Communications, in the U.S. at least, 26% of those surveyed express alarm and 28% express concern about the climate. This is up significantly since 10 years ago.
‘I also think that climate anxiety manifests in different ways, so is hard to measure. I think it manifests in overt ways – such as, people saying they are worried about climate change; and subtle ways – such as in people’s avoidance and denial of the topic.’
He adds: ‘I think we should all be more anxious. The fact that we are not is indicative of how hard it is to grapple with such a huge issue.
‘I don’t think we should be helplessly anxious, or panicking, but just seriously recognising the risk we are facing. The situation calls for fear because it raises questions about our existential safety and the health of our only home.
‘Hopefully fear, when dealt with, can lead to action.’
So what can people do for relief if they feel climate anxiety?
Andrew says: ‘I recommend that they allow themselves to feel their feelings, and not judge them or push them away.
‘Then I recommend that they talk with others about their feelings – it could be a friend, a therapist, a neighbor or co-worker. This tends to help people feel less alone. Then I recommend that they find a group of some sort – and climate activism group, a climate support group, an outdoors group.
‘If there are none around, there are online resources, or they can form their own local “Climate Cafe” or “Climate Circle” (our website, Climate & Mind, has templates for such groups). Uniting with others who have common concern can be inspiring.
‘Once people have gone through those steps, they are in a good position to find an action that is in alignment with who they are, their skills, resources, and so on.
‘I try not to give people suggestions for how to act, but help them go through a process so that they find what feels meaningful and effective for them. So the four steps are: Feel, Talk, Unite, Act (and back to feel – it’s a dynamic spiral).’
Britt agrees that connecting with others who feel similarly is a good way to go, telling us: ‘First and foremost, connect with others who are similarly awake to the severity of the threat humanity is now facing and can mirror your concerns.
‘Too often, people with climate anxiety feel isolated in their feelings since there are no social norms yet around how to discuss these psychological experiences of relating to what is happening to the earth (with family, friends, co-workers, etc). This sense of aloneness makes the distress much harder to deal with.
‘They can look for groups like the Good Grief Network, or emotionally intelligent friends and environmental groups where people know how to talk about – and sit in – these feelings.
‘When you connect with others who “get it”, you have more support in how you cope. Coping with climate anxiety involves finding meaning in the difficult feelings, and allowing the feelings to transform you into a more purpose-driven human being. This means finding the authentic role you have to play in bringing solutions forth, even if you can’t solve the problem itself.
‘And just know that when you first have your awakening to the full extent of the crisis that brings on the climate anxiety, it can be extremely painful and even fill you with grief, but you won’t always feel that intensely; it can get better once you learn how to mourn what is happening, build some new forms of resilience, and find some purpose from it all.’
Tim meanwhile describes various approaches which can be taken in therapy by saying: ‘Some will find taking direct action helpful, though others will need to deal first with the presenting anxiety.
‘The anxiety, from a psychodynamic perspective, may have its origins earlier in the client’s life. Any unresolved difficulty may be triggered by talk of climate change where the role of parent, for instance, can be substituted by world government. Neglectful, unreliable and motivated by greed.
‘Some clients will need some help overcoming their anxious feelings and perhaps even overtly challenging negative feelings through some form of self-talk and remaining mindful of their own internal processes.
‘Do they react to climate change in the same way as other aversive events? Working with the client’s preferred coping style can give rise to useful material as for some issues as big as this they may need to evoke more appropriate ones…they cannot do it alone!
‘Clients whose family systems do not share their views feel particularly isolated. They may spend a significant amount of time and energy looking at source material to validate their feelings. This too can exacerbate the situation and simply incite others to prove them wrong and evoke feelings of shame in the client.
‘Clients who are warm to a more Buddhist approach can find the idea of interconnectedness really helpful. This will help the client see that every small action an individual takes can have a lasting impact on those around them. Buddhist thinking can also help clients to realise that from a meta-perspective really nothing is in our direct control.’
When asked what the general public needs to understand about climate change above everything else, Andrew tells us: ‘At the most basic level, they need to know that it is real, and poses an existential threat to us (humans) as well as the ecosystem that sustains us.
‘They also need to know that it is not hopeless, and that there are things we can do collectively to slow the process down.
‘Once that is covered, I think it’s important to remember that climate crisis is on one level an issue of science – physics, chemistry, ecology, etc. – but on a very important level it is an issue of psychology; because how we respond, or don’t respond, will be determined by how we feel, think and act, individually and collectively.’
When asked the same question, Britt says: ‘The world we each grew up with is not the world that we are going to be able to hold onto. Everything is changing due to climate change: food and water availability, the frequency of heatwaves and other extreme weather events, infectious disease, mental health problems, international conflict, gender equality, you name it. It touches everything, and it deepens existing injustices.
‘Our job is to face up to this fact, mourn what’s being lost and use the power of those feelings to move us into action so we don’t forsake what can still be saved.
‘At this late stage in the game, we have an opportunity to plant new seeds for positive societal change that give us a chance to foster mutually beneficial relationships with each other, other species, and the planet.
‘Whether we like it or not, we must transform our economy, society, and way we see ourselves as humans in the world because the climate crisis has already changed what it means to be human, and we have to catch up.’
Need support? Contact the Samaritans
For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.
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