‘Hijacked by anxiety’: how climate dread is hindering climate action

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You’re browsing in a supermarket and fretting mildly about the air miles of some green beans. Or you’re daydreaming of that island holiday you deserve once the pandemic has died down but worrying about whether you should be flying.

How about the amount of meat you eat and all that plastic it’s wrapped in? Maybe you should be vegan. Maybe you shouldn’t have children: they will only increase your carbon footprint.

Maybe nothing you do will matter anyway.

They call it climate anxiety – a sense of dread, gloom and almost paralysing helplessness that is rising as we come to terms with the greatest existential challenge of our generation, or any generation.

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Now an increasing number of psychologists believe the trauma that is a consequence of climate breakdown is also one of the biggest obstacles in the struggle to take action against rising greenhouse gas emissions. There is a growing sense that this trauma needs a therapeutic response to help people beyond paralysis and into action.

A deep sense of dread and vertiginous anxiety may be the most rational response to the dizzying pace of the climate breakdown in 2020, but it is seldom the most helpful when it comes to affecting change on the scale needed to limit the unfolding crisis.

Caroline Hickman, a psychology lecturer at the University of Bath, says climate trauma has been lurking within western society’s collective psyche for the last 40 years, rendering most people unable to act on the looming crisis we have known for decades would come.

“As that trauma is coming to the surface today we see this as anxiety,” she says.

Those left standing in a supermarket unsure whether they should buy an avocado may be suffering from mild eco-anxiety, according to Hickman. “You’re not falling apart but you feel caught in a dilemma.”

Hickman is part of the Climate Psychology Alliance, a coalition of psychologists working to help individuals and organisations address climate anxiety. The group is part of a growing chorus of voices advocating the use of psychological principles to help process the collective trauma of environmental breakdown and motivate action.

“When we look at this through the lens of individual and collective trauma, it changes everything about what we do and how we do it,” says Dr Renee Lertzman, a US-based pioneer of climate psychology. “It helps us make sense of the variety of ways that people are responding to what’s going on, and the mechanisms and practices we need to come through this as whole as possible.”

Lertzman works with some of the biggest organisations in the world to change the way leaders “show up” in the climate conversation. She believes anyone with a public voice has a responsibility to act as a guide, not as a doomsayer or cheerleader. “We already know a lot about what the conditions are now that promote healing and promote working through trauma. It’s just that, for the most part, we haven’t yet applied that to a climate trauma context,” she says.

In simple terms, she says, the human psyche is hardwired to disengage from information or experiences that are overwhelmingly difficult or disturbing. This is particularly true if an individual feels powerless to affect change. “For many of us, we’d literally rather not know because otherwise it creates such an acutely distressing experience for us as humans.”

Placard at a climate crisis protest in Barcelona

This makes communicating the reality of the climate crisis, and examining the complex societal structures behind it, a psychological dilemma with existential consequences. In its most extreme form this inability to engage presents itself as a complete denial of the climate crisis and climate science. But even among those who accept the dire predictions for the natural world, there are “micro-denials” that can block the ability to take action.

A mind intent on avoiding the stark reality of the climate crisis can slip into a defeated eco-nihilism or cling to the gung-ho optimism of a free-market “solutioneer”. In this way, many are able to hold the idea of the climate crisis in mind, while continuing the behaviours that exacerbate it.

“Frankly, what a lot of us are doing unintentionally is simply retraumatising each other over and over again,” Lertzman says. “I feel like we have allowed ourselves to be hijacked by our own anxiety, our own urgency, our own recognition of the high stakes, such that it makes us tone deaf and blind to the human dimension of this story, which is that we all want to be heard and seen and respected and valued, and we all want to feel like we’re part of the solution. What we’re seeing right now is the impact of that.”

Hickman’s work in the UK includes psychological training for climate campaigners who want to get their messages across without triggering the defences that can cause people to shut down. The answer lies in a “ruthless compassion” – for ourselves and others – that acknowledges the extreme discomfort in confronting the crisis while still taking responsibility for the present, she says.

“A measure of mental health is having the capacity to accurately emotionally respond to the reality in our world. So it’s not delusional to feel anxious or depressed. It’s mentally healthy,” Hickman says.

This “internal activism” can gently dismantle defences, while still demanding change, by acknowledging the desire to cling to our psychological defences and working around it. It gives rise to what she calls “radical hope”: a belief that meaningful action can make a difference, which is rooted in the reality of the crisis rather than a naive belief that it might not be as bad as we think.

“We have to help people to navigate these feelings by increasing our emotional resilience and emotional intelligence. We need to talk around people’s defences. If their defences are triggered by what you’re saying you can forget it,” says Hickman. “They won’t hear you.”

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