Climate Despair and Psychotherapy

Many people feel sadness, anxiety or despair when they understand what can or will be in store for them with the ongoing climate catastrophe.


My garden suffering climate catastrophe induced drought

When confronted with such emotions, people of a certain socialization’s (especially white western middle class) first go-to often is psychotherapy: „hey, you have difficult emotions, go to therapy to feel good again!“. Also Jem Bendells Deep Adaptation paper has been described as „sending people to therapy„. And there is the Climate Psychology Alliance,the Psychologists for Future and even the NHS rushing to help.

But I consider this approach deeply flawed, irrelevant and maybe even harmful, and here is why:

  1. Psychotherapy is usually only available to people who are quite rich (globally speaking), thus the people who are most complicit in the destruction not only do have to suffer least of the consequences but also get most help in dealing with it. So it is like the next level of climate injustice. (you might even say that getting into these feelings of despair and anxiety is only possible for people in comfortable life situations, but that is another topic to explore at another time.)
  2. Therapy’s goal is to „repair“ something. You only treat something that is not the way it should be (pathological). Or in psychotherapy language, you treat inadequate emotional responses to a certain situation so that they become more adequate and thus improve life quality. However, when dealing with a possible end of the world or at least of all that is dear to oneself, despair, anxiety and sadness are quite adequate reactions. There is nothing to treat here, this is healthy! But if you look closer, the issue is what psychotherapists consider „adequate“ (or „normal“). And it seems that „adequate“ is more understood as „socially acceptable“. This also makes sense, because quality of life is largely dependent on social integration. But then the issue is not in the individual itself, but in the society they are living in who do not consider an adequate reaction to be acceptable. Which brings me to the next point:
  3. Psychotherapy is a tool to fix an individual „malfunction“ (maladaptation, trauma etc.) to get that person back into a functionable state within society (which is considered to function properly). However, climate despair is not the result of an individual malfunction, but of collective malfunction. We really fucked this one up, albeit to very different extents. So this collective problem requires collective action, an individual can do very little to change the situation. So what is the individual to learn in therapy to do about their situation? Which tools of the different therapeutic approaches can help? Not much really, the issue won’t go away by processing one’s own past or changing one’s behaviors or looking at one’s relationships.
  4. Talking about the past: psychotherapy usually assumes that there was something wrong in one’s past (traumatic experiences, missing bonding with parental figures etc.) that overshadows the present and makes it difficult for an individual (! see above) too act appropriately in their current live and be able to enjoy it and not be bogged down by anxiety or sadness etc. However, climate change is not something that has happened in the past and is over and still overshadows the present, it is something that is happening now and will only get worse in the future. Reprocessing the past and finding peace with it will not change that development.

So what to do? From what I see, most „psychological“ suffering with respect to the climate catastrophe comes from a cognitive dissonance. As I have touched upon above, people (especially from the typical target group of psychotherapy)  start realizing the situation we are in and start experiencing the adequate (!) emotions of anger, anxiety, sadness and despair. However, they live in a social situation, where most still happens according to business as usual. That creates a dissonance: they move mentally and emotionally into a disaster mode whereas people around them see (almost) nothing wrong in their current life situation. And such a cognitive (or social) dissonance is really hard to handle. It can create feelings of isolation and unsafety and can really move people into an immobile state, similar to depression (hey, maybe depression has sometimes similar roots?).  You want to act according to what you know, but it is not possible because it doesn’t fit with your life situation.

So the solution in my opinion would be to break that isolation. We need people to get together to process their new understandings and to find ways to together act on what they now know, from prayers and demonstrations to blocking coal mines or bridges to building resilient eco villages. That way, despair is transformed into a motivation for action, with a collective that understands and shares the emotions.

Since this article is mainly about dealing with the emotions caused by the ongoing climate catastrophe, here are some options how to this for such collectives:

  • If you are a member of a traditional nature based spiritual practices or have been invited, within such traditions there are lots of rituals for this, for example the Field of Love prayer circles originating in the Siberian Shaman tradition. But don’t steal (Facebook link).
  • Also nature based spirituality can be (re)created. The reclaiming movement does that for example, but you can also try to develop your own as a group, with lots of listening to and watching Nature, by trial and error, by trying to figure out what people in your area used to do etc. Learning from other nature based spiritual traditions can be very helpful, but again, without stealing.
  • There are also new nature based rituals that are not explicitly spiritual and thus maybe more accessible to secular folks, such as the spiral ritual of The Work That Reconnects by Joanna Macy. If done within the framework of a committed collective, they can really be helpful in the communal processing of grief and establishing an understanding of „we are in this together“. And if all works well, this „in this together“ would include Nature.
  • Also if you as a group feel more connected to some non-nature based religion, they might offer also collective rituals that can help process grief and despair, such as the Buddhist Metta or the Christian intercession.
  • But really, the main anti-stressor for those feelings is being part of a committed solidarity network. We are a social species and feel strength and safety by being part of a group (herd, pack, whatever). And the above social dissonance removes us from most feelings of being part of such a group, that’s why establishing new ones is so important. See the research of Coan JA and Sbarra DA and Susan Pinker for example for more details.

In the tradition of math textbooks, I have an exercise to deepen the understanding of the topic:

Look at alternative methods of dealing with such feelings, like Sustainable Activism, Deep Ecology or nature connection. How much do they fall in line with therapy approaches and how much do they provide such a collective approach?

Further reading:

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5 Antworten zu Climate Despair and Psychotherapy

  1. Pingback: Climate Despair and Psychotherapy – martinjohnmilner

  2. Carsten Zwölfschritte schreibt:

    This is one of the best articles on the topic I’ve read so far. Das ist einer der besten Beiträge zum Thema, die ich bisher gelesen habe.

  3. Pingback: Our Burning Planet: Op-Ed: End-of-life anxiety and finding meaning in a collapsing climate – My Blog

  4. Madeleine Birchfield schreibt:

    Many of the points you have made in this blog post about climate despair could also be made with respect to the socioeconomic and political conditions in the Western World, with the collapse of democracy and the liberal international order, especially in Europe and in the United States, with Brexit and the potential collapse of the United Kingdom as a ‚united‘ ‚kingdom‘, with Donald Trump in the United States and the end of the transatlantic relationship, with the rise of far-right parties in Europe such as the National Front, the Alternative for Germany, the League for Salvini, Vox, the Sweden Democrats, and so on, with increasing migration of peoples from the war-torn (and now climate refugees) Middle East and Africa changing the familiar cultures and societies of the West, with the significant decline in manufacturing and industry, especially in Scotland, Northern England, Northern France, Eastern Germany, and Northern Italy, brought upon by the forces of globalisation and the whims of international corporations seeking to cut costs and make more profit, with increasing socioeconomic inequality in Europe causing tensions such as the yellow jackets in France, with the declining economic and political power of Europe vs the rest of the world, like China and India, and so on. I have mostly focused upon Europe but similar trends can be found in the United States, in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and so on. All of these are largely out of control of many of the people suffering psychologically.

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