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The Hyperobject in the Room: Climate Change and Mental Health

This month will mark the 52nd annual Earth Day. The first Earth Day in 1970 brought together a broad coalition of people and groups to raise awareness of air pollution, water pollution, and other issues facing the environment. The decade that followed saw passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the creation of the EPA.

Fifty years later, climate change shows a new and daunting perspective on human impact on the planet. Climate change has been described (first by the writer Timothy Morton) as a hyperobject, a thing so far-reaching in time and space that the human mind struggles to make sense of it. And despite, or even because of how vast and hard to understand climate change is, it is having an immediate impact on our mental health. A recent large survey of young people found that more than half reported feeling sad, angry, anxious, afraid, and helpless about climate change. 76% agreed that “the future is frightening,” and 56% agreed with the statement “humanity is doomed.” A recent UN report identified that stress, anxiety, and worsened mental health are already apparent in those directly affected by increasing heat and extreme weather, and are likely to increase in the future.

Climate change is a growing concern for mental health professionals, and organizations are forming to address the mental health impacts of climate change. The Climate Psychology Alliance of North America identifies these as a few of the mental health impacts from climate change:

  • Direct exposure to trauma as a result of extreme weather events (e.g. wildfires, hurricanes), or displacement from slower changes (e.g. drought, sea level rise), which can trigger trauma-related symptoms and PTSD.

  • Pretraumatic, or anticipatory stress related to awareness of climate projections, increased risks, and uncertainty about the future.

  • Chronic stress related to witnessing slow-moving disasters.

  • Grief and sadness at loss of landscapes, ecosystems, animal species, and changes in familiar places.

  • Prolonged stressors related to climate shifts, such as loss of livelihood from farming or other land-based jobs, food insecurity, poverty, or social instability.

  • Direct impacts of increased temperatures and exposure to pollution on existing physical and mental health problems.

Like all stressors, climate change intersects with other vulnerabilities, stressors, and traumas. Those with existing trauma history or mental health concerns may be more susceptible, and those who are poor or marginalized are more vulnerable to the effects of economic and climate shocks.

For some people, climate anxiety or grief may be intense enough to be a good reason to seek therapy. For many others, climate anxiety is not the only concern, but it’s part of the picture. It’s okay to talk about climate change with your therapist. Your feelings may be understandable given the reality of climate change, but you can still work to process your emotions, manage your distress, find realistic opportunities for hope, and build resilience. Finding your sources of resilience is what can give you, and all of us, the power to turn toward the difficult things that we face together.

If you are in need of therapy to address climate anxiety and grief, reach out to schedule a free consultation today

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