Embracing climate related emotions
Climate change is one of the most difficult and daunting predicaments that humanity has had to navigate. Its impact is pervasive throughout all contexts of our society, permeating conversations of policymakers and children alike. Within the many sectors that investigate the influences of climate change are researchers, activists, communicators, scientists and more, all working tirelessly to address this monumental problem. Data are collected, reports are generated, technologies are developed, meetings are held, policies are written. As we busy ourselves with the important work of what must be done in our external worlds, is there space to pause for a moment to reflect on our internal worlds and who we are amidst the chaos?
Who are we?
Humanity often defines itself by its achievements – the accomplishments of different civilisations, the architectural wonders of the world, technological advancements, scientific discoveries, and our ability to harness universal laws to our own means. All dramatically shape how we live in this world. We could also define ourselves by our ability to expand or defend through exploration and war. But what of our existence in the moments during this toil? Perhaps moving away from teleological ways of defining ourselves can allow a more useful and authentic space in which to ponder this important question.
‘Who we are’ is a way of being that begins as we are thrust into this world and take our first breath. Winnicott described the nature of our existence aptly when he said ‘There is no such thing as a baby… a baby alone doesn’t exist’. These timeless words describe the importance of connection with others for us to grow, develop, belong, and thrive. Who we are in this world was always meant to be understood in reference to who we are alongside in this world. It is only within engagement with others that we can truly begin to know who we are. Our interactions and responses to others gives us important information about our sense of self and how our views of the world have been shaped. When pondering who we are, it is the way we are with each other that defines us far more intimately than the accomplishments our society achieves.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked what the first signs of civilisation were. Rather than technological advancements of ancient cultures such as fishhooks and clay pots, Mead pointed to the evidence of civilisation found within a skeleton – a broken and healed femur bone. In the animal kingdom, a broken leg prevents the animal from running from predators, hunting for food, or travelling within the security of its herd. An animal with a broken leg is likely to die before the leg can heal. When anthropologists found a healed human femur bone, this indicated that someone else had bound their leg, fed them, protected them, and helped them survive while their leg healed. Someone chose to put another’s survival before their own.
In modern society, we can feel somewhat removed from the turbulent and survival based circumstances through which our civilisations were first established. As climate change increases and we step deeper into the Anthropocene, our lives will become more frequently punctuated by disaster and societal disruption which may threaten our survival. For many, this is not a matter of future projections, as they are navigating the devastating effects of current disasters such as wildfire, flooding, earthquake, snap freezes, and pandemics. During these times, what will be the defining aspect of human society? Will it be the technologies we create to overcome these tribulations? Or will we allow ourselves to be defined by something deeper and more meaningful?
Humanity’s response and humanity’s growth
In a recent paper I investigated the human experience of crisis and disaster through two questions. How does humanity respond to crisis? And how can humanity grow from crisis? I looked at the human experience of crisis over various contexts such as natural disaster, terminal illness, domestic terrorism, environmental destruction, financial crisis, and pandemics. Throughout the various contexts three themes emerged.
1. Emotional experiences
Disaster and crisis generate significant emotional responses in those who endure them. These emotions are distressing and can prompt individuals to respond defensively, prioritise ‘in-group’ well-being, and disengage emotionally. However, despite their discomfort, emotions can also be a catalyst for growth in insight and resilience. Whether individuals are able to engage with and process their emotional experiences during and after the disaster is highly indicative of how well they cope with these circumstances. Those who avoid their emotional experiences are at greater risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression following disaster. Similarly, those whose emotional wellbeing is not attended to by first responders are less likely to engage with their communities following disaster.
When individuals have the capacity and support to engage with their emotional experiences, the growth that follows this process is transformative. Emotional engagement is linked with more adaptive, risk adverse, and protective behaviour during disaster, and greater post traumatic growth following disaster. Importantly, the greater the distress levels reported the greater the growth, indicating that distress is to be harnessed rather than avoided. Furthermore, those who were more emotionally engaged were also more capable of supporting others during and after disaster, providing opportunity for growth to others as well as themselves.
2. Collective responsibility
Supporting mental health through disaster requires a multi-level collective approach. Support between individuals allows emotions to be expressed and explored through dialogue and leads to greater growth than when attempting this process in solitude. These benefits are also bidirectional as individuals on both sides of the interaction benefit from the experience of belongingness. Support on a community level reduces disaster related losses by a half. When services are designed in collaboration with the community, they are more accessible to marginalised groups and more effective in providing support. Advocates increase engagement with services and reduce mental health stigma.
Social networks within communities enable practical and logistical support and facilitate invaluable communication between households. These previously established networks buffer the impact of disaster, increase community solidarity, and allow communities to mobilise quickly. Support and responsibility is also necessary on a government level. When countries do not have adequate legislation to govern mental health provisions, their contribution to the global burden of disease is higher. There is also a higher likelihood of human rights violations, institutionalisation, and homelessness, despite local services existing to support the population.
Communities require appropriate communication well before the disaster unfolds to respond well to it. This communication needs to scaffold the predicted events, inform on levels of risk that may occur, and have threat appraisal embedded into the message. Transparent and pre-emptive communication provides the opportunity to reflect on and process the potential for experiences prior to them happening. This combination of communication and reflection allows responses to be adaptive and preconceived, overcoming the momentary ‘freeze response’ that can occur with initial shock. Although there can be concern about providing information that increases mortality salience, individuals who believe in collective efficacy respond in protective and prosocial ways following this information.
The way forward
As psychologists, we are in the unique position of being invited into a person’s vulnerability each time we meet with them. It is within this space that our role is often guiding people through ways to manage their painful feelings in order to bring their lives back into equilibrium. Typically, treatment for overwhelming affective experiences involves a combination of physiological, behavioural, and cognitive approaches. When it comes to climate related emotions, our task is less clear.
People are becoming anxious about what their future holds; grieving the losses within our biosphere; becoming ‘home-sick’ whilst still at home as they respond to the rapid changes within their landscapes; and angry about the apathy and lack of adequate action in this area. When these clients enter our therapy rooms, how do we approach these types of emotional experiences? When the cognitions surrounding the emotional experiences are completely sound, perhaps it is our own understanding of ‘equilibrium’ that must shift.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change release regular reports that document the expected increases in weather events, increases in disease, increases in climate related migration, decreases in access to food and other life sustaining resources, and many other impacts of climate change. Whilst it is pertinent to consider how aspects of physical health and safety need to be protected through these changes, we should not lose sight of the human experience within these changes; experiences that will involve heightened emotion. With climate related disasters expected to increase, and with them emotional experiences, we need to consider the possibility that working towards the reduction of unpleasant emotion is no longer going to serve our clients well.
As our society seeks to reconsider how our external world functions, we as psychologists should apply the same level of reflection on our internal worlds. This area of Climate Psychology is growing and platforms such as Deep Adaptation are becoming sanctuaries where individuals can collectively reflect on and process their experiences. It is becoming clear that the ‘equilibrium’ we seek to establish now needs to shift towards an increased capacity to tolerate, reflect on, and grow from our unpleasant emotions and to do this collectively.
Given the inherent adaptiveness of emotion and the importance of addressing these issues in advance in order to equip people through disaster, time is of the essence. As we support our clients in embracing their current emotional experiences in order to make meaning and grow from them, the benefits will be recognised beyond the present.
Clients who increase their tolerance to difficult emotions and ability to reflect on these through dialogue, are then better equipped to be resilient through disasters in the future. Those who have gone through this emotional labour before these events will be more capable of making adaptive choices and supporting others within the event.
They will have greater capacity to respond pro-socially and collectively rather than defensively and selectively. If we equip people now, then at some point in the future when we reflect on the question of who we are, our response can be: we are a civilisation who look after each other, whatever ‘broken femurs’ the future may bring, we have the resilience, social connectedness, and emotional capacity to choose to tend to the wounds of others.
Clinical Psychologist Registrar
Climate Justice Union, Western Australia
Illustration: Tim Sanders
Byock, I. (2012). The best care possible: A physician’s quest to transform care through the end of life. Avery.
Kieft, J. & Bendell, J. (2021). The responsibility of communicating difficult truths about climate influenced societal disruption and collapse: an introduction to psychological research. Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) Occasional Papers Volume 7. University of Cumbria, Ambleside, UK. (Unpublished)
Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The theory of the parent infant relationship. International Journalof Psychoanalysis, 41, 585-595.
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