Stress for the soul. Climate change triggers stress and despair

Stress for the soul: what helps against the fear of the climate crisis?
Psychology Climate change triggers stress and despair in many people. Why is this so? And what would a therapy look like?
by Matthias Becker
[This article published on 5/19/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet,]
Looking away is not healthy, nor is looking: Climate change triggers hopelessness and sadness

This much is clear: more and more patients are coming to psycho-therapeutic practices because they are suffering from the ecological crisis and are afraid of climate change. Typical diagnoses are “depression” and “obsessive-compulsive disorder,” and the impairments range from sleep disorders to substance abuse and suicidal tendencies. Anxiety plays a key role, but despair, hopelessness and sadness are also involved. Younger people and women seem to be more affected; in any case, they seek professional help more often.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have long dismissed the problem or interpreted it as a mere symptom, “cover stories” of an underlying neurosis. More recent publications distance themselves from this. “We want to distance ourselves from the pathologization of the phenomenon,” write Bernd Rieken and Paolo Raile, for example, two psychotherapists and lecturers at Sigmund Freud Private University in Vienna. “We consider Eco Anxiety as fear of the real existential threat of global warming and its consequences.” Rieken and Raile distinguish between negative feelings and behaviors that are appropriate to the climate crisis, they say, and pathological emotions and behavioral strategies that require treatment.

Drawing this line, however, is more difficult than it might seem at first glance. An emotional reaction to the climate crisis is natural and inevitable. But which way of dealing with it is “the right one” – or even “a healthy one” – is difficult to answer.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines Eco Anxiety as “chronic fear of the destruction of the natural environment.” The influential Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht speaks of a “generalized perception that the ecological foundations of our existence are collapsing.” Representative surveys show that this fear is spreading. In the fall of 2021, 1,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 were surveyed in each of ten countries. Of them, a total of 27 percent described themselves as “extremely concerned” about climate change, and 32 percent as “very concerned.” This group was particularly large in the Philippines (84 percent), India (68 percent) and Brazil (67 percent).

Desperation takes very different forms. For example, there’s a California high school student, 16. When fierce wildfires hit the state in late summer 2021, her school is closed for several days. The student becomes involved in a conservation organization and changes her diet to minimize greenhouse gases. “My behavior became obsessive, ultimately I developed an eating disorder.”

There’s a French mother, 29 years old. She is very worried about her son’s future: “Will he have enough to eat?” She wants another child, but because of the climate crisis, she thinks it’s irresponsible.

There’s David Buckel, a lawyer in New York, passionate about the environment. He burned himself to death in the spring of 2018, at age 60. “Our planet is being destroyed by pollution,” he wrote in a suicide note. “Laying down a life will hopefully raise some awareness that more countermeasures are needed.” And finally, there’s a Swedish girl with sleep and eating problems. Doctors diagnose Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The girl stands in front of Stockholm’s parliament. She carries a sign that reads, “School Strike for Climate.”

Displacement, like politics

The link between ecological and psychological crisis, however, is rarely so concrete and obvious. For most people, fear manifests itself primarily as defensiveness. “I’d rather not deal with that, it’s too much for me,” is often said.

In psychoanalytic literature, denial is distinguished from this “situational dosage”. Its manifestations range from crude denial to relativization. In the latter case, the fact of the ecological crisis is formally accepted, “acknowledged as truth.” However, this knowledge is not related to one’s own person, above all it is not experienced emotionally: “It will probably come, but elsewhere and for others …” This split becomes visible, for example, when the future of one’s own children is imagined in a world heated by two or three degrees, without consequences of global warming appearing at all.

This so to speak soft, more yielding form of denial corresponds to the state-political processing, which, after all, also combines formal acknowledgement with practical ignorance. It is by far the most frequent reaction. For obvious reasons, however, research does not focus on this majority. Anyone who states in a survey or before a psychological test that they themselves have no problems with climate change is apparently not affected by Eco Anxiety.

Psychology understands fear as an arousal that primarily causes displeasure. Fear is never rational, but sometimes it is appropriate and serves as an alarm. Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, according to the common definition, are directed at non-existent dangers or are unreasonably strong. They are considered to be in need of treatment if they prevent the affected person from coping with everyday family and professional life.

Psychologist Albert Bandura and sociologist Aaron Antonovsky showed as early as the 1970s that our psychological and mental health is essentially based on the assumption that we can survive dangers and upcoming stresses: “Bad things will happen, but I can handle them!” Bandura speaks of “self-efficacy expectancy” in this context. If this is lacking, persistent fear inevitably makes people ill. In relation to climate change, we are thus faced with an almost impossible task. A general reliance on one’s own strength is of little help in a crisis that affects all of humanity and that will take on unforeseeable forms. The scale of this danger makes us feel powerless.

Not only that, almost every everyday action results in the release of greenhouse gases that drive global warming. The infrastructure on which our way of life is based is maintained with fossil fuel energy. Even the road we take for a spin on our bikes and the Internet we use to check the latest scare stories about heat waves in the Arctic. No one can claim not to contribute to global warming.

“Eco-anxiety” is therefore often associated with “eco-guilt.” In the international survey mentioned earlier, 51 percent of young people said they felt guilt and shame – even though they, of all people, have contributed almost nothing to climate change!

In marketing and political rhetoric, climate change and ecological destruction are often explained as a matter of individual responsibility that consumers and voters should take for the planet. The flip side of responsibility is blame. This fosters neurotic attitudes on both sides of the climate debate. For guilt is also felt by those who deflect and trivialize the problem. “Increasing exploitation of our resources while denying the consequences reinforces the unconscious sense of guilt as well as the fear of retribution, which must be denied all the more rigidly, so that the unconscious fear becomes ever greater,” writes psychoanalyst Delaram Habibi-Kohlen.

Denial is not an individual failing, but an adapted, desired behavior. The strained silence among family and friends about climate change is based on the fact that other behaviors are tabooed and stigmatized. People with excessive climate anxiety therefore suffer in particular from their isolation. While others pretend that nothing is going on, they take on more responsibility than they can bear.

Hope would help

Psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and psychiatrists agree on one point: In order to cope with fear and despair, “realistic options for action” are needed. But how can we experience ourselves as effective – change shopping behavior, forgo air travel? Vote for less polluting parties? Participate in protest rallies?

From a therapeutic perspective, there’s little to be said against it. Such behavioral changes can be helpful if they relieve feelings of guilt. Isolation can be overcome through conversations and actions with like-minded people. But as long as there is no collective recognition of the situation and corresponding countermeasures, these are “simulations of self-efficacy” (as the activists Gregor Hagedorn and Felix Peter put it). They will not stop global warming. Eco Anxiety arises from the barely bridgeable gap between one’s own experience and society’s response.

Psychological treatments cannot resolve this dilemma, at most they can make us aware of it. They must leave room for despair and parting. Often, therapists and the treated will only be able to share their pain. “Hope is an essential factor in successfully confronting fears of climate change,” emphasize the two psychotherapists Rieken and Raile. But hope cannot be forced or trained.

Matthias Becker works as a freelance print and radio journalist in Berlin

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