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Now We’re Talking to Therapists About Climate Anxiety

Psychologists weren’t exactly trained to counsel clients through the destruction of the planet

FFor the better part of a year, a young man in Melbourne had been struggling with insomnia, depression, and anxiety. He heard strange voices, stopped going to school, and contemplated suicide. As his condition worsened, he spent more time online, reading about climate change. Before long, he had convinced himself that he was personally responsible for the depletion of the earth’s water supplies. He compulsively checked the faucets at home, fearing that a leaky tap could deprive “millions of people.” By the time he was admitted to the inpatient unit at Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, he was trying not to drink water at all. “I feel guilty about it,” he explained to his psychiatrists. (After several days on antipsychotics, he conceded that the oceans would survive his eight cups a day.) His case, described in a 2008 report in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, was the first reported instance of “climate change delusion.”

It probably won’t be the last. The news about climate change has been bleak for a long time, and over the past few years, it’s become harder to ignore. In 2018, the United Nations released a panic-inducing report predicting massive heat waves, food shortages, and even, potentially, genocide by 2040. (The report was memorably illustrated in the New York Times with an apocalyptic photo of a child alone in a drought-ravaged landscape, playing with a pile of bones.) In a 2019 Gallup poll, 45% of respondents — up from 36% five years ago — predicted that global warming would seriously affect them in their lifetime. Only 20% said they didn’t worry about the environment at all.

The destruction of the planet — what could be worse? It can cause people to freak out or go numb.”

Climate change poses a unique challenge for therapists, many of whom say they’re hearing more patients, especially younger ones, talk about their fears of a warming planet. On the one hand, worrying is a natural response to an existential threat, and it serves a purpose: It can motivate us to take action. But climate anxiety can be debilitating, especially for those who are already prone to anxiety or depression. “The way we think about climate change, it’s so dire,” says Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist in Boston and host of the podcast Savvy Psychologist. “The destruction of the planet — what could be worse? It can cause people to freak out or go numb.”

And triggers are everywhere: Daily life becomes laden with guilt, and simple pleasures are impossible to enjoy. Taking a plastic bag at the grocery store is a reason to berate yourself; a warm day is a sign of our species’ imminent extinction. Susan Bodnar, a psychologist in New York City’s Upper West Side, told me that three of her patients brought up the environment in just the past week. “I’m seeing people who are really distraught about climate change,” she says. One, a middle schooler, had concluded that she would never have the chance to be a parent. “I’m not raising kids to watch the planet die,” she told Bodnar. Another listed the natural features she expected to disappear, including “the coral reefs,” “the plants,” and “all the beautiful things.”

“This is a tricky thing, when you’re talking about real-world problems and how they interact with interpsychic phenomena,” Bodnar says. Climate change isn’t something she or her patients can solve, but eco-anxiety is still “a real thing they’re experiencing, just as anything else would be real, like bullying or parents divorcing.” Bodnar validates her clients’ concerns (“You’re not making this up. It’s true.”) and points out signs of hope: “Look at the grown-ups who are busy trying to make it better,” she tells her youngest clients. Sometimes she takes her patients outside and conducts sessions while walking through Central Park. “Just feeling that there are parts of the earth that are thriving gives people a sense of hope.”

Younger adults as well as kids tend to be more attuned to environmental issues: In the Gallup poll, 54% of 18-to-34-year-olds worried about climate change “a great deal,” versus 38% of 35-to-54-year-olds and 44% of Americans over 55.

“Oftentimes what I’m seeing is one of two extremes,” says Lauren Hoffman, an instructor at Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry who often works with children and adolescents. One is “being really avoidant: ‘It’s too overwhelming, so I can’t engage at all.’” (That is my strategy. A couple years ago, I read David Wallace-Wells’s viral New York article, “The Uninhabitable Earth” — a primer on worst-case scenarios — and felt panicked for days. When his publicist mailed me the book-length version, hoping I would review it, I instead deposited it straight onto a pile of stoop books: I wanted it out of my sight ASAP.) The other extreme, Hoffman says, is “feeling way too invested… constantly reading articles, watching the news, and having a really hard time pulling themselves away.” (The Uninhabitable Earth was a #1 New York Times bestseller.) “A big part of my job is helping people find a healthy balance. We have to engage in a healthy way, while also setting some boundaries so it’s not the only thing you’re focusing on.”

Sometimes, a fixation on global warming is really about something else, whether that’s a past trauma or — as in the case of the Melbourne man — a psychiatric disorder. “I’m always looking at how it fits into the story of their life,” says Juli Fraga, a therapist in San Francisco. “While they are talking about climate change, what meaning does that hold for them, beyond the real-world problem? Does it speak to something else they didn’t feel control of in the past? It might represent somebody’s fear of death or somebody’s worries around finality that they have no control over.”

Then again, maybe climate anxiety isn’t always a stand-in for smaller, more personal fears; imminent flooding and food shortages are frightening enough on their own. It’s daunting, to put it mildly, to find the words to help talk someone through the existential terror of a burning planet. At least for now, therapists are simply trying to help their patients recognize that obsessive anxiety and rumination are counterproductive.

“If you’re lying in bed worrying, you’re doing that instead of sleeping,” Hendriksen says. “If you’re worrying throughout the day, you’re doing that instead of being present. Could that energy be channeled somewhere else, like attending a protest, that would make people feel more efficacious? If you let yourself get burned out, you’re no good for anyone. In order to be the most effective, take care of yourself and band together with the people around you.”

Author of Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey