By Dr Susie Burke PhD, FAPS
Dr Susie Burke is a senior psychologist at the Australian Psychological Society working on the environment and disasters.A significant part of Dr Susie Burkes' work in the Psychology in the Public Interest team is to examine and promote the role that psychology can play in helping us understand the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change.. Her current areas of interest include psychosocial impacts of climate change, communicating about environmental problems, psychological barriers to climate change, coping with climate change, and promoting pro-environmental behaviour
For those of us who are clinicians and therapists, trained to help people cope with distress, trauma, mental health problems, grief and loss, we have a good understanding of how bad it can feel, and how difficult it can be for people when they are suffering from depression and anxiety, or struggling with grief and loss, or feeling helpless and hopeless. Climate change can bring up all of these feelings.
Many people may feel seriously concerned, frightened, angry, pessimistic, distressed, or guilty in response to climate change. Qualitative research finds evidence of some people being deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel they are making a difference in stopping climate change. New terms such as ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘climate change anxiety’ are sometimes used to describe this.
For people directly affected by climate change in the form of extreme weather event disasters, the feelings can be very intense. Depression, PTSD and complicated grief reactions are the most common mental health problems, and many many more people who do not end up with a diagnosis of depression or PTSD, nonetheless end up with heightened distress, grief, stress and strain.
These feelings matter because they reduce people’s wellbeing and quality of life. This is obvious at the pointy end of the scale if a person is suffering from a profound anxiety or depression. But even at non-clinical levels of worry and distress these feelings can interfere with people’s capacity to get on with their lives in an optimal manner. They can also lead to flow-on effects like strain on relationships, higher levels of stress, increased substance use, family breakdown, reduced social participation, decreased productivity. And there are even community health impacts, like an increased likelihood of criminal behaviour, violence and aggression as community members experience various stressors related to climate change. So feelings matter because they lead to increased suffering for individuals and communities.
Environmental psychologists would give an additional answer as to why it’s important to know how people feel about climate change. Knowing how climate change affects us psychologically is profoundly important for what people do next. How people think about and react to direct threats like extreme weather, or their anxiety about future threats to the environment, or their distress about vicarious threats to other people in other places, or their existential fears about changes to life as they know it, are important factors in the behaviours that follow. People need to be able to manage these feelings so that they can properly accept the reality of climate change and not avoid it. Coping with the feelings we have about climate change is very important so that:
- we don’t become overwhelmed by these feelings
- we don’t try to avoid the feelings and hence the problem
- we can stay engaged with the problem of climate change
- we can keep functioning well whilst accepting the reality of climate change, both in our everyday lives, as well as on the changes we are making to reduce the threat of climate change.
Several recent publications have shed light on this human capacity to dodge the problem. George Marshall’s book ‘Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to avoid climate change’ is one example. Per Stoknes has also written about this in his 2015 publication ‘what we think about when we try not to think about global warming.
Whilst some of these more avoidant responses might be temporarily soothing for the individual, they are hopeless for solving climate change.
We know from the research on climate change coping strategies, that there are also several adaptive ways in which people can respond to distressed feelings about climate change. Taking environmentally responsible action is one potent way to manage and reduce the anxiety and distress about climate change. People feel empowered and more hopeful and optimistic when they take action, or work with others to address climate change. Other good climate change coping techniques identified in the psychological research include social support-seeking, becoming more attentive to the issue, accepting climate change as a threat, shifting values to a more “pro-environmental” position, expressive coping (finding ways of expressing one’s feelings about climate change as a way of moving through those feelings), and problem solving.
This is why knowing about how people are feeling about climate change is so important. We need to know how we feel so that we can help ourselves and others to respond to these feelings adaptively – in ways that minimise the threat of climate change, at the same time as coping with the feelings.
Now, the all-important next question is ‘how can we actually help ourselves and others to move in the direction of adaptive strategies for coping with climate change?’ This curly question is the subject of the next blog…