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A Conversation With a Climate Therapist

Published:
May 13, 2024
August 28, 2023
Feeling concerned about climate change? Learn how the practice of climate therapy can help.|Feeling concerned about climate change? Learn how the practice of climate therapy can help.

When you think about our climate, what do you feel? Where does your mind go when you reflect on the state of the natural world? How does thinking about the environment affect you?

In a 2021 survey of Gen Z-ers, 56% agreed that "humanity is doomed." In the same study, over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives. Nearly seven-in-ten Gen Z social media users felt anxious about the future when they saw content addressing climate change.

Our world is burning (literally), and young people are coming to terms with that fact in different ways. Some grow numb to it, some deny it, some let the panic consume their lives, some dedicate their lives to activism, and many — a great many — suffer from anxiety because of it.

In the face of all this, the question is raised of what can be done, for ourselves and the earth we live on. Many people have found an answer in climate therapy.

Facing climate emotions

If that term is new to you, you’re not alone. To learn more about it, we chatted with Laura Carter Robinson, Psy.D. — a clinical psychologist who specializes in climate therapy. We started with the basics: what is climate therapy?

Climate therapy, Robinson shares, is a form of therapy that is focused on helping people address their feelings and experiences with climate change. In the past year and a half, she’s devoted most of her practice to addressing climate change. Her work is two-fold: not only does she see clients to discuss their feelings about it, but she also educates on and advocates for climate therapy, and serves on the executive committee of the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America.

“It is really new to most practitioners in the mental health field,” she shares. “Only about 33% of mental health providers say that they feel prepared to have a conversation about climate change with clients.” And yet, around 9% of Americans are already, or are interested in, talking to a therapist about their feelings surrounding climate change.

What’s worth noting, too, is that there are so many feelings that can stem from the reality of climate change — anxiety, fear, dread, anger, guilt, hopelessness, powerlessness, despair, grief, loss. And even these emotions can be broken down into different experiences. Take loss, for example. In the face of climate change, this can look like loss of control, loss of personal or occupational identity, loss of animal species and nature, loss of place, loss of traditions and cultures. With all these feelings weighing on us, we asked Robinson, what can be done? 

Action as the antidote to despair

First of all, it’s important to recognize the credibility of these feelings: “It makes sense to have feelings about climate change because, if you're paying attention and you're aware, then it's pretty horrifying,” Robinson shares. “So that's normal, and we should not pathologize that.” But when those feelings start to interfere with your ability to get through the day — when they overwhelm you to the point of panic, depression, or other debilitating experiences — that’s when it’s really time to get help. As Americans, we don’t talk about climate change enough, even though 64% of us are at least somewhat worried about it. Talking to a therapist can remind you that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling, and despite the challenges, there is a way out.

“We know that action in general is an antidote to despair because we are doing something, we’re trying to make a difference,” Robinson shares. Knowing this, climate therapy is focused on giving people the emotional space to process their feelings and helping them get to a place where they can do something about those feelings.

Building compassion for one another

Similarly, doing something about the climate crisis involves both taking care of our individual needs and “actively turning towards other people who are suffering.” For Robinson, that is what’s at the heart of her work.

“It's deeper than labels and diagnoses,” she says. “It's really about helping our culture care for the earth and for each other.”

We know that the effects of climate change impact marginalized and impoverished communities more. In other words, those with the least resources are suffering the most — a “fundamentally unethical” reality, as Robinson puts it. The injustice of this, combined with the rise in deaths from heat waves, should drive us all in our efforts to better care for creation. These facts serve as a stark reminder that change calls for collective effort and accepting personal responsibility.

Offering climate therapy is one of the ways Robinson is taking action. “It just feels to me like I need to do this,” she shares. “This is my piece of what I can contribute. I think everybody has some piece that connects to their own values, their own talents, their own skills, and their own interests. We can find that, and work from that.”

Despite the bleak realities, there is hope. “I think crisis always carries the potential for transformation,” Robinson says. Our fears and anxieties can paralyze us, but when we talk about them and realize that others are experiencing the same thing, they can also mobilize us. It starts with caring — about ourselves, about our fellow humans, and about the Earth we call home.

If you’re interested in exploring climate therapy, check out the climate-aware therapist directory on the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America website.

Creators:
Jessie McCartney
Published:
May 13, 2024
August 28, 2023
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