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Three Forms of Climate Distress


This summer, in North America, we’ve witnessed record-setting heat waves, nightmarish wildfires, choking smoke from unprecedented burning of forests, destructive floods, record-setting ocean temperatures, and intense storms. As always, some of these disasters are unlikely but possible in a world without climate change, but their volume and intensity makes it clear that this is not normal. More and more of us are aware on a daily basis of the destruction and destabilization of the natural systems we know and depend on.


These disasters cause direct trauma and loss for many, which we know can have major mental health impacts. But the mental health impacts of climate change reach beyond our existing models of trauma. These are a few of the ways that many people are affected, even if they have not experienced direct trauma or loss.



Loss of sense of predictability or safety. One of the ways we are affected by trauma or negative life experiences is that our beliefs about ourselves and the world may be upset. The already unfolding consequences of climate change undermine our expectation that the environment will behave as it has, that our current social and political systems will be able to deal with changes, and that we will be safe. This uncertainty can lead to withdrawal, avoidance, depressed mood, irritability, anxiety, and other signs of distress.



Chronic stress and anxiety. This is closely related to the loss of predictability and safety. The constant presence of climate change reminders and news create natural emotional responses of anxiety, sadness, anger, or fear. It’s easy to let these emotions continue to persist beneath the surface, interacting with other sources of stress to cause draining and debilitating chronic stress and anxiety.



Disenfranchised grief. Defined by psychologists as “grief that society (or some element of it) limits, does not expect, or may not allow a person to express,” (APA), disenfranchised grief can appear in many ways in our lives. One form is the sadness we may feel at the loss of a landscape, an ecosystem, a species that we loved. Some have coined the term solastalgia to describe longing for a lost landscape or ecosystem, for the feeling that a place has changed irrevocably, even though you may not have left it. These feelings can become more painful when you feel isolated with them and unable to connect.



One of the important principles of climate-aware therapy is to acknowledge that the emotions we feel in response to climate change and ecological destruction are valid and not in themselves the problem. If you’re feeling any of the things I describe here, you’re probably feeling them because you care about the earth, about your loved ones, about the future, about non-human creatures. That doesn’t mean something is wrong with you.


The challenge ahead is coping with these emotions and finding ways to express them that allow us to continue, grow, and maybe even engage in ways to make the world a little better. Finding someone to share your feelings with is often a powerful step, whether that’s a friend, family member, or other trusted person. For some, books about the emotional experience of climate change can be validating and hopeful. There are also emotion-focused groups, such as climate cafes, that provide opportunities to make space for your emotions with others. You are not the only one! The Climate Psychology Alliance has one of many lists of resources: https://www.climatepsychology.us/climateemotions, as well as a directory of climate-aware therapists.


If you’re struggling to cope with your feelings related to climate change, or to manage stress in your life in general, therapy can help. Reach out today for a free consultation!



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