Extreme heat waves, catastrophic flooding and storms, wildfires exploding in areas previously untouched by them: While we have been aware of the climate crisis for a while now, it seems like every year we are witnessing more and more of its impacts on our daily lives and on those around the globe.
With the impacts of climate change becoming increasingly tangible, there is no doubt that it has begun to enter the therapy room. Clients may present with any number of emotional responses to the climate crisis: fear, anxiety, terror, sadness, despair, hopelessness, overwhelm, helplessness, guilt, shame, frustration, anger, rage.
This overall experience can be classified as ecological or environmental anxiety, or “climate grief.” And it’s important to note that it is not pathological, but rather a normal response to a critical situation.
One way to understand climate grief is to think of it as an emotional response to experienced trauma, which can be discrete and sudden — such as an experience of a natural disaster — or cumulative and ongoing as temperatures rise and living conditions are impacted. With any trauma, there is an inherent sense of loss and need to grieve.
As clinicians, we can approach climate grief in a similar way to any trauma and grief work — with the goal to re-establish meaningful connection and move toward purposeful acceptance that results in learning and growth and ability to find meaning.
A Trauma-Informed Approach to Climate Change
There are three aspects of a trauma-informed approach to care to keep in mind when talking about climate change:
- As with any trauma work, the experiences with climate grief can vary from person to person and may compound past experiences of trauma or loss. In the case of climate change, people are impacted differently, as the crisis exacerbates and magnifies existing inequities in our society.
- Trauma is disruptive. The pervasive nature of climate change can disrupt one’s sense of safety, predictability and control, and clients might feel they are a victim of nature’s indifference, or be struggling with not being able to change or control the situation. Becoming aware of these limitations can result in a deep sense of loss.
- Ultimately, trauma, due to its overwhelming nature, can lead to dissociation, denial or disconnection. As clinicians, it is important that we recognize these defenses and potential manifestations in the forms of depression or risky or self-destructive behavior.
Moving Through Climate Grief
When approaching climate grief, it can be helpful to refer to Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief as a guide to help clients with the ultimate goal of re-establishing meaningful connection and moving toward purposeful acceptance.
- Denial can be a normal response to the overwhelming nature of the climate crisis. As clinicians, we should pay attention to the defense mechanisms our clients use and share our observations of how they might be impacting functioning and the healing process.
- Anger is a very common response to ongoing and cumulative frustration and loss. In our work with clients, we can find assertive and creative ways of channeling this frustrated energy into action, such as social engagement and political action.
- Bargaining can result from a need to escape from experienced powerlessness, which can sometimes transform into feelings of guilt or self-blame as an attempt to regain an illusion of control over the situation. A good way to address this is by practicing mindfulness with clients, using the past and future to inform their ability to engage in the present; focusing on what they can control instead of dwelling on what they can't.
- Depression may be characterized by isolation, decreased motivation, and lost sense of meaning, direction, or purpose. We can understand this as anticipated loss and remind clients of what remains intact in the present. We can also encourage clients to practice gratitude and promote community-building through social engagement and connection.
- Acceptance is not about condoning the situation, but rather about becoming aware and honest with oneself about our current reality. This can take place by integrating loss into a client’s way of living in a way that is more intentional, purposeful and meaningful.
While this work can feel overwhelming and new to clinicians, leaning on our existing knowledge and frameworks can help make it feel more manageable. You likely know a lot about working with trauma and grief, and you can use that background to help support your clients through their experiences with climate grief.
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