Act: Inspiration

Psychologists Explain our Climate Change Anxiety

September 21, 2018

“Climate change is here; it’s happening,” seems to be the overwhelming sentiment after a summer of heatwaves and historic wildfires that now has, with barely a breath in between, slipped into an early fall marked by severe storms and deadly floods.

Hurricane Florence continues to devastate mid-Atlantic states while Typhoon Mangkhut takes a severe toll on China and the Philippines and has, for now, been named the world’s strongest storm this year. But before the wind and water there was the heat and fire.

Severe wildfires broke out around the world this summer, from the U.S. and Canada to Sweden and Greece. The heatwaves in Europe caused a glacier to melt and a river to evaporate, while wildfires in the western U.S. made the air hazardous to breathe.

For many people watching these events unfold, it’s scary to say the least. The fear, anxiety, and trauma is far more severe for those living through it. A recent survey of students in Puerto Rico, for instance, found that more than 7 percent of those polled showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder following Hurricane Maria. More than 8 percent had symptoms of depression — twice as high as children in non-disaster settings, the researchers said.

But despite a growing awareness, the connection between climate change and mental health is only just starting to be explored.

To better understand our anxieties in the face of what feels like a turning point in the public’s acknowledgement of what global warming might look like, ThinkProgress spoke with two climate change psychology experts. Both have noticed an uptick in the number of people expressing fear and uncertainty — and not just among those in the eye of the storm.

“I think that it was below the surface for a long time,” Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychologist, told ThinkProgress. “Oftentimes, we can be anxious and not really know that we’re anxious, or we can be anxious and not know why.”

Van Susteren said, “until it’s really in your face, you can continue to repress that anxiety because it’s so uncomfortable. And now, we can’t repress it anymore. It’s right there in our face.”

Trained psychology expert Dr. Renee Lertzman has also noticed that with all the recent events — heatwaves, drought, fire, hurricanes — there has been an “increased awareness and conversation precisely about anxiety, about trauma, about fear.”

Is climate anxiety different than other types of anxieties?

Experiencing extreme heat has been a big trigger this year, prompting people to reach out for help dealing with their stress, Van Susteren said. This is because it’s something people are able to associate with global warming more directly.

“Anxiety is probably the most important thing anyone who is concerned about climate change needs to understand,” said Lertzman. Understanding anxiety from a psychological perspective can change the way we talk about and address climate change “so that we can be as resilient and engaged as possible.”

“Nobody has an anxiety-free life,” Van Susteren acknowledged. But add climate change to existing anxieties, and it has a multiplier effect; our current anxiety, or stress, or depression can be exacerbated further if climate change comes into the mix — whether that’s from a drought limiting your water supply or feeling an additional sense of dread with each additional news broadcast.

Then there’s the idea of control. Van Susteren gives the example of someone who’s anxious about their job. In this situation, you can unpack the various things in your personal control that you could do to help manage the situation. “What is at root in climate [change] is this horrible feeling that we don’t have much control,” she explained.

Lertzman expects this is why a lot of people are “tuning out” when it comes to climate change. “We’re dealing with an issue of scale, so it’s very easy to feel utterly insignificant in light of the scale.”

How does this anxiety manifest?

Anxiety takes many forms and is influenced by any number of factors. How someone responds to the reality of climate change can, for instance, be shaped by their age. Older individuals may express concern about their grandchildren. They may also feel complicit, Van Susteren said, because “they have a lifestyle they don’t want to change and so they are much more likely to downplay, minimize, carry on, etc.”

Younger individuals, on the other hand, “recognize that the target’s on their back.”

This is reflected in recent research. A survey released earlier this year shows that more and more millennial voters acknowledge the science behind climate change and overwhelmingly want officials to take action.

But while younger generations are demanding that society and government do more, they’re also looking inward. People in their 30s, for instance, are starting to increasingly question whether they should even have children because of climate change, Van Susteren explained, due to the “chaos” a child will be brought into and because of the implied carbon footprint of another human being.

It’s not well understood how climate change anxiety is impacting people’s decisions to have children. For some this may mean not having children at all; for others it could mean adopting. Some families may choose to have a second child so neither has to face an uncertain future alone.

“If a person doesn’t want children that’s fine,” Van Susteren said. “But the fundamental unnaturalness of saying the conditions [of the planet] are such I shouldn’t have a baby, that’s a biological inclination and to have that thwarted, that’s just such a profound injustice.”

People also react differently to climate science. Increasingly, studies are starting to warn that we are dangerously close to the point of no return — that the world isn’t doing enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. And that this will lead to catastrophic, irreversible consequences.

According to Lertzman, people tend to respond to these dire scientific projections in two very different ways: complete nihilism or a doubling-down on optimism.

The nihilism is reflected in news articles saying humanity missed it’s chance to act or the sentiment that “nothing matters so why try.” Or, at the other end of the spectrum, you’ll see groups cheerleading the potential of clean energy and other technologies.

But it’s not an “either/or” situation, Lertzman explained.

“What we’re needing right now are articulations of the nuance.”

“We need to look at what’s happening honestly if we’re going to be able to be truly resilient and truly capable of making wise choices and decisions.”

Everyone wants to go immediately into problem-solving mode. But it’s okay to take a moment to “pause, take stock, reflect,” said Lertzman.

“Let’s deal with whatever might be coming up around guilt, and shame, and remorse, and anger and all that stuff that is very natural when you start to really, truly accept and take stock of the situation.”

What about the feeling that we need to sacrifice our lifestyles to tackle climate change?

“We have an innate need and desire to feel like we’re good people,” explained Lertzman. “And if we experience conflict between our desire to be a good person… and our desires, things we might like to do that we know are not totally cool, that will generate a cognitive dissonance situation.”

Typically, people respond by burying this guilt and denying it’s there. So, when it comes to the idea of changing your diet, using less plastic, or flying less, for instance, Van Susteren says it’s key to reframe those choices as an opportunity rather than a sacrifice. “Look at your life and sync with your values,” she said.

We’re already starting to see a shift in people adopting more climate-friendly lifestyles with articles declaring the “unstoppable rise of veganism” or individuals donating to organizations that help offset the carbon footprint of their travel.

A large part of tackling the cognitive dissonance, however, involves simply acknowledging our feelings.

“[People] often experience themselves in a double bind,” said Lertzman, “where, [they think], I’m getting this message about the environment and everything that’s being presented just feels completely untenable for me. Like, ‘I have a child, what am I supposed to do? Stop using plastic for my kid’s bottle?’”

Instead of forcing shame and guilt upon people, Lertzman said a new level of compassion is needed in order to spur action.

“We have this opportunity to create a space where we can actually be honest with our feelings about what’s going on and actually process what it means to be living in these times.”

This compassion can help neutralize the guilt and shame and turn it into something more constructive.

“Just even from a neurological perspective,” she said, “it soothes the defense mechanism so we can actually move into that kind of prefrontal cortex problem solving.”

What about those who experience climate change very directly?

For individuals who are immediately suffering the consequences of climate change — catastrophic storms, drought, heat — there is an additional set of emotions and stressors at play.

Fear is the root emotion of anxiety, said Van Susteren, and from there it is expressed and dealt with in different ways, from ignoring the issue or taking a defeatist attitude, to substance abuse or suicide. (A recent study found that suicide rates are likely to increase with every degree Celsius in temperature rise.)

“You can be so fearful that you become catatonic, absolutely paralyzed,” she said. “You can be so fearful that all you have to do is smell a little bit of smoke or hear a siren and you are immediately brought back to what is now a post-traumatic stress state.”

A survey released in April, for instance, revealed unprecedented levels of psychological distress among Hurricane Harvey victims. Serious psychological distress was found in 18 percent of the survey’s respondents. People described trouble sleeping, losing weight, having difficulty thinking, and increased illness. To help, Harvey survivors launched a Facebook group for those struggling with anxiety, pain, or anger with a focus on “sharing solutions, talking through problems, sharing experiences.”

Heat too can make people more irritable, which in turn can make people more aggressive — either towards themselves or others. Pollution can harm our health and exacerbate psychiatric symptoms of anxiety, bipolar disease, obsessive compulsive disorders, said Van Susteren. “I’ve said this before — not everything that counts can be counted.” In other words, these secondary factors that intensify mental health issues are hard to quantify — but it doesn’t mean they aren’t happening and in some way connected to climate change.

farmer who feels stressed to the point of suicide because they can’t make enough money due to crop failures might not blame climate change. Likewise, an individual who feels hopeless after losing their home, or even family members, due to a hurricane probably has more immediate and urgent concerns.

But we know climate change is making individual events more severe and destructive, making more people vulnerable to the impacts. Understanding these connections and how best to address them should be at the forefront of policy and response efforts experts say.

Several news reports, for instance, detail the prolonged toll Hurricane Maria has taken on Puerto Ricans. Individuals who already suffered depression are more vulnerable and many suspect suicide rates may have increased in response to the storm’s impact. As a CNN headline starkly put it, this is the “Maria Generation” where “young people are dying and suffering on an island with a highly uncertain future.”

Unfortunately, response efforts are lagging behind. Not much is set up at the moment to help those who are bearing the brunt of climate change deal with the long-term mental health impacts. “It’s something that the mental health professionals, the associations, psychiatrists, and social workers, really, really need to start talking about,” said Van Susteren.

Understanding climate anxiety, and how to incorporate psychology into our plans for tackling climate change is growing, but only slowly. A significant barrier, however, is inherent in the problem — we won’t, or don’t know how to, talk about it.

“There’s an enormous opportunity for mental health professionals to get into this and to help people begin to process what they’re experiencing,” echoed Van Susteren. “And especially to start working on what we can start doing to build emotional resilience, because you cannot have a healthy society that is scared.”


Teaser photo credit: by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Kyla Mandel

Kyla Mandel, Editor of DeSmog UK, began working with DeSmog UK as deputy editor in November 2014 shortly after the project launched. During this time, she has broken numerous stories on energy policy, including one on the Koch Brothers’ European lobbying efforts. In March 2015 she was appointed DeSmog UK’s Editor. She has also covered international climate science denial efforts in Rome and Washington D.C., and joined DeSmog’s reporting team in December 2015 at the Paris COP21 climate conference. Originally from Montreal, Canada, Kyla has been living in London for the past several years working for titles such as Green Futures Magazine, EnergyDesk and most recently The ENDS Report. Her work has also appeared on Forbes Online and The Guardian’s Sustainable Business channel. Kyla is currently researching climate refugees at Columbia University’s graduate journalism school.

Tags: building personal resilience, building resilient societies, climate change responses