Do you get anxious thinking about looming climate threats? Do you feel dread or malaise that, despite your efforts, the impacts of climate change are worsening? Do you feel embarrassed that you’re still driving a gas-powered car?
There’s a phrase for that, says Alexandra Woollacott, a psychotherapist and counselor in Seattle: climate distress.
It covers the broad range of human emotions and reactions — anxiety, depression, grief, despair, fatigue — she sees from clients when discussing climate change.
Compared to distress individuals feel in their personal lives, climate distress encompasses “a set of interrelated political and economic and psychological and social justice issues that span space and time,” she said. And they’re intergenerational.
“Because of its scale, because it feels so much bigger than us, it increases that experience of powerlessness,” Woollacott said.
In her practice, Woollacott helps people cope with these emotions and speak about what seems unspeakable — because it’s so terrifying. “If they’re ready, when they’re ready, I help them think about what they can do.”
In a Q&A with The Seattle Times Mental Health Project, Woollacott shares her experiences counseling people through climate distress and offers tips to manage.
How did you become a climate-focused therapist?
I grew up in Australia and would write to my local members of parliament about climate change. I studied environmental politics and ecology in college and was preparing myself for a career, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity or how I could be of service.
Then I started studying psychology in order to understand what drives behavior. It receded into the background for me for a while until the Australian bushfires a few years ago. I wasn’t living there at the time, but I was experiencing it indirectly, and it was deeply troubling to me. I had been disassociated and not processing my feelings, and it felt like a bubble had burst.
I reached out and found my way to a group of climate-aware therapists.
When I was in that place of deep despair and distress, I remember thinking I have to walk away from my practice. I have to commit myself, full time, to activism or learn regenerative farming or do something on the front lines. I realized I had to slow down and process what was happening to me, and have conversations with other people that I trusted to realize that I could continue to work as a therapist and help people who were also having this moment of waking up to what was going on and struggling with it. That’s been my project for the last few years.
What does it mean to be a climate-aware therapist?
It means believing in a very real existential threat of climate change and seeing some of these symptoms of distress as meaningful and worth exploring. It’s helping people find ways to cope with it and speak about what people are afraid of or ashamed of and then chart a pathway toward living more in accordance with what they value and care about.
What are some of the emotions or feelings you hear from clients around this topic?
There is so much grief. There’s sadness at the loss of ecosystems and species. There’s anger at injustices that are being committed. There’s also shame that comes up in connection to recognizing that all of us humans are involved in creating this problem.
What does shame look like in practice?
It’s easy to feel like we’re victims in this. That it’s people in positions of power who have led us astray. But often we ourselves are the ones overburdening the planet. We may be victims in some respects that we’re stuck in this culture that keeps us comfortable. But we have to acknowledge the way that we behave and the choices we make do harm to other people and the natural world.
How do you help people manage what’s in their individual control while also acknowledging the larger systems in which they live?
There are all of these cultural, political, economic forces that sometimes make it feel like we don’t have a good choice.
As a therapist, I create spaces in which we can be more conscious and mindful together. Once people begin to feel regulated, that opens up an imaginative space where we can think about how we can live more according to what we value.
That’s different for everyone. Some people can’t afford to drive a less-polluting car, so maybe they don’t change that, but maybe there are other small things that they can commit to, as an ongoing practice. It’s amazing what small actions and changes in a person’s life can do for their sense of agency and efficacy.
What strategies have you suggested for people to manage these emotions?
We can think about steps of recovery or how to manage as establishing safety in one’s mind and body. How do we regulate ourselves? Therapists can help with that step by helping people function to find a place of regulation.
There are other means of finding those things for people. There is so many opportunities community people can find for groups that organize around around activities. There are also spaces for people who want to gather and learn about this crisis together and process the overall information that we have access to.
How to do you advise people to protect themselves from burnout?
We know at this stage that this is a pretty urgent issue. When we are aware of the urgency of it, there’s this tendency to need to leap to action.
I see where that comes from, but I also think there’s tremendous value in slowing down and finding ways to process what what we are reading about or experiencing firsthand and what we are feeling in response.
Some argue there’s no time for that because this feels so urgent. But this is a long crisis that we’re faced with. However we respond, it needs to feel sustainable.
It’s OK to not be thinking about this all the time, to not read an article that comes up in your newsfeed, to go out and enjoy oneself in spite of the fact that there is this sort of threat and crisis.
There needs to be boundaries.
What resources can you recommend?
- Climate Psychology Alliance
- Mental Health in the Climate Crisis — You can register online for the event through Bastyr University
- Beacon Hill Earth Day Event — You can find more information through Event Brite
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.