Managing Climate Grief

Symptoms include sleeplessness, difficulty making decisions, feeling out of control, and even guilt about being alive.
(art photo rendering by David Luke)

Manipulated image that reflects potential changes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness due to climate change and invasive species. “Little Indian Sioux River, Boundary Waters,” Archival Inkjet Print, 16” x 24”, 2016/2017

At a certain point on the drive north from Minneapolis to Duluth, there is a noticeable shift in forest composition. As a child, with my nose pressed to the glass, I watched as leafier trees gave way to evergreens and knew we were near Hinckley.

Making this drive last spring, I was reminded of how the overlap of these two types of forests makes Minnesota a unique indicator of the effects of climate change. A recent Washington Post article explored how scientists are researching what Minnesota’s forests of the future might look like as the fast-warming climate becomes unsustainable for boreal forests in the northern half of the state.

Watching the trees as I drove, I was hit by a feeling of inarticulable loss.

Philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” in 2003 to refer to the grief triggered by environmental destruction that leads to an altered sense of place. Solastalgia is “the homesickness you have when you are still at home,” he wrote in 2012.

An April 2020 Yale University study shows that an unprecedented majority of Americans are worried about climate change-induced events in their local area, including extreme heat (66 percent), droughts (65 percent), flooding (60 percent), and water shortages (56 percent).

A 2020 American Psychological Association study shows 56 percent of adults say climate change is the most important issue facing society, but 51 percent say they do not know where to start to combat the crisis.

Since 2018, Google searches for the term “climate grief” have tripled. Governments and psychologists are scrambling to create a framework for dealing with the mental health impact of climate change. Anxiety, relationship strain, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder are all listed by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) as mental health outcomes that result from environmental degradation.

Dr. Kristi White, a clinical health psychologist, has seen an increase in the frequency of patients seeking assistance for mental health symptoms related to climate grief (sense of loss and sadness) and eco-anxiety (worry about an uncertain future), especially younger people and those involved in environmental activism. Symptoms include sleeplessness, difficulty making decisions, feeling out of control, and even guilt about being alive. Younger patients, in particular, can become paralyzed by decisions around life and family planning. Existential anxiety about the future of the environment is something previous generations did not have to manage.

“This is a normative reaction to a legitimate thing that’s happening,” White says. “When it gets to the point where it’s so overwhelming that someone can’t function, then we become a little more concerned.”

The Universal is Personal

Not everyone is affected by the effects of climate change in the same way. “Black, Indigenous, and persons of color experience the health impacts of climate change at disproportionate rates. The experience of climate change is not universal,” White says. “Depending on your historical trauma or ethnic identity, that’s going to look very different depending on your lived experience.”

MDH acknowledges that communities of color are disproportionately at-risk for health consequences of climate change, and they are also less likely to have access to therapy to process resulting emotions.

Additionally, although the term is new, the feeling of solastalgia has existed for thousands of years, recurrently experienced by Indigenous communities as a result of colonization.

There is a danger in depersonalizing the experience of climate change through generalization instead of helping patients realize how they are affected at the individual level, White adds. “Even with a global pandemic, what I am seeing is a very different experience depending on the person I am working with,” she says. “You cannot help someone make meaningful change unless you make it individual or personal.”

The desire to push away overwhelming feelings is increased when we do not have the resources to cope. White encourages people to practice “spreading out, limiting, and decreasing the demands as much as possible, and restoring and increasing their resources. Running away, suppressing, or fighting against those emotions oftentimes amplifies them or makes them more difficult.”

Increasing emotional resource capacity can include tending to basic needs like safety, getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, exercising, and connecting to the natural world. “We need to create infrastructure that provides equitable access to these basic needs, particularly for those hit disproportionately hard by climate change,” White adds.

There are also “high-currency coping strategies” that satisfy multiple needs. For example, community gardening addresses physical activity, nature, food, and community involvement.

“There are definitely ways that we can create infrastructure and use our environment for developing emotional stamina and resilience,” White says. “We often label difficult emotions as bad — and certainly they are unwanted and uncomfortable. But I think one of the most important things I do is help people recognize those difficult emotions as inherently valuable,” White adds. “Something that matters to you is showing up right now. That is useful information worthy of being explored and investigated, [and] an opportunity for growth and developing resilience.”


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