Therapy for Climate Change Anxiety

By Andrew Dwyer

As the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent in the form of wildfires, floods, and other extreme weather, it is only natural that many of us are feeling increased anxiety. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the continued increase of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will have serious effects in the near future on water security, food security, and overall human health.

The Institute for Economics and Peace predicts that, as life in the global south (less developed nations and the hotter parts of industrialized nations) becomes unsustainable for most people, we will be dealing with over a billion displaced people by 2050. If we do not change our trajectory within about a decade, many climate scientists expect climate change to become an existential threat to humanity. Within a century, ecosystems essential to human life may well collapse. It is enough to make anyone anxious.

In response, an increasing number of clinicians are specializing in climate change anxiety. Groups like the Climate Psychology Alliance are reaching out to clinicians who fail to recognize the validity of climate science or the threat of climate change to mental health. The message? The climate science is clear, and so is the clinical evidence: the APA (American Psychological Association) has recognized the detrimental effects of climate change on mental health.

For clinicians, the first step is recognizing just how dire the climate science is and just how much this growing problem is something therapists need to address. Validation of this sort is especially helpful given the thread of climate denialism that exists within our media and politics. For our clients, seeing those in power deny the existential threat of climate change can only deepen the hopeless feelings aroused by global warming itself. This problem is further compounded when deniers threaten groups and people who publicize the facts. Validating the facts in therapy can help to reduce the burden of this intimidation.

So, the threat of climate change is real. How do people absorb this reality in a mentally healthy way? Dr. Thomas Doherty, a clinician out of Portland, focuses on his clients’ connections with nature to help them gain some measure of “realistic optimism” about the state of the world. But the question remains: how does a person help change the direction the world is headed? For many a client, the prospect of making a global impact as an individual is overwhelming. JFS psychologist and anxiety specialist Dr. Erica Mesnard recommends a local approach. She suggests that clients get involved in causes within their own communities. Adopting methods of direct local action can help people reconnect with their communities and confront their feelings of powerlessness. Dean Spade’s book Mutual Aid, a primer on the topic of direct action, shares innovative ways that ordinary people share resources and support members of their communities who are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.