Sarah Lowe is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health.
Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey R. Moran
Climate change is changing the way people live on Earth as floods, wildfires and extreme weather change the land and destroy property.
Living with climate change as a constant threat on the horizon has also changed the way people think about their own existence.
Both kinds of suffering – the acute trauma of immediate disasters and the background sense of existential doom – require different responses, both personal and societal.
Sarah Lowe is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, and she spoke with The Washington City Times about both effects on human well-being.
Following are excerpts from Lowe’s conversation with The Washington City Times. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Climate disasters and trauma
Virtually every state has been affected by some sort of exposure to climate change, be it a weather-related disaster, or a wildfire, tornado, or whatever.
Disasters are fundamentally stressful. And for some people they can be traumatic, both directly – by leading to direct threats to one’s life, to serious injuries, deaths, destruction of one’s property – and indirectly. We know (and this is also true of the pandemic, as an aside) that when people are faced with stressful situations, some people who have a tendency towards aggression and violence can be tipped off by stress.
The number of child abuse and intimate partner violence and things like that tend to increase in the aftermath of disasters, as does extreme heat, so that’s another form of trauma that occurs in the aftermath of disasters.
Gypsy Rick smokes a cigarette outside a cold store during a heat wave in Portland, Oregon, US Aug. 11, 2021. REUTERS/Mathieu Lewis-Rolland
MATHIEU LEWIS-ROLLAND | REUTERS
For people who do not have serious life threats, it is stressful if part of your property is flooded or your property or possessions are damaged, or if you have to evacuate for an unknown period of time – that is very disturbing, especially with the idea that this is a normal thing may be what you have to deal with.
In terms of mental health implications, we know that PTSD can be the result of disasters. Disasters are also associated with increased rates of a variety of psychiatric conditions and symptoms: depression, general anxiety, substance use, disturbances and health behaviors, such as healthy eating and exercise. And all of these can have long-term downstream implications for mental health.
There are the physical consequences of disasters, such as exposure to mold or to wildfire smoke. The sedentary behaviors that can result from disturbances and routines can cause or increase the risk of physical health problems – which are then intertwined with mental health. In addition to the direct traumas of disasters, they can have other mental health consequences that may not be so obvious.
Prepare for an immediate climate change disaster
One thing that is essential is the preparation on many different levels, as far as people are able to do it. It is all linked to the social determinants of health, such as income, housing and employment. Some people can invest in systems such as generators, such as pump pumps, if their home is flooded, to prevent that from happening again, while other people cannot.
Do what you can on an individual level. That could be a plan for if something like this happens again: where are we going? Planning is exercising some sense of control.
At the community level, investing in infrastructure to protect people from exposure, whether that’s creating homes that can withstand disaster or not creating homes in low-lying areas, investing in generators, having plans to evacuate entire communities together, build trust between government agencies and community leaders and organizations. The better we can protect people from the truly traumatic exposures that happen during disasters, the better it will be for mental health.
A house is seen destroyed in the aftermath of the Hurricane Delta in Creole, Louisiana, USA, October 10, 2020. Photo taken by drone.
Address Latif | Reuters
Preparing yourself should also include a sense of confidence in your community and your government that they will not endanger their citizens. That’s really tricky, because it’s all very expensive, and if you invest in one thing, it means you can’t invest in other things, but I think it’s very important.
Companies also need to prepare, especially if they’re going to provide essential services during disasters, but also, you know, take care of your employees because we know that one of the stronger predictors of post-disaster mental health are these longer-term stressors, like losing your job or financial stress. We spoke to people who lived through Hurricane Katrina, and many of them had companies that really, they felt, took care of them, gave them financial support, or if there was a national chain, for example, matched them with a job in the community where they have been expelled to. And those things really made a difference.
Psychological resilience is important across the board and that requires addressing the social determinants of health and exposure. So making sure people have their basic needs – that they have good housing, that they can find paid work, that they have health care, that they have access to mental health care and that they are covered, that people are not working 100 hours a week and not get by. All those things will make for a healthier society and are very important, so that’s at the policy level.
At the more community and individual level, we need to do things to foster the resilience of children, adolescents and families. In school, that means building in a socio-emotional curriculum to foster the psychological capacities that foster resilience—a sense of agency, purpose, hope, social skills and social support, a sense of purpose, emotion regulation. All these abilities that we know are very important, in addition to all the academic skills that are important as well. Although I say that, recognizing that there is already a lot of pressure on schools and teachers.
So we need to find ways to integrate that into that family life, into communities, organizations, after-school programs and religious congregations, so really work towards a trauma-informed and healthy and resilient population. That becomes very important to us as we deal with these increasingly complex and intense stressors.
Take time and space to take care of yourself, whether that means exercising, meditating, meditating, spending time in nature. That’s really important to build resilience.
Ecological grief, solastalgia, fear of climate change
We need to distinguish between the traumatic stressors that can arise from disasters, or other exposures or displacements associated with climate change, and this free-flowing fear of climate change – we know this is happening, it’s scary, it’s sad and what are we doing that on a larger scale?
It is certainly an existential threat. People talk a lot about not only their own future, but also about making decisions about having children. Am I going to have children and put them in a burning world? I think that is a valid concern. Whether that’s going to happen in your lifetime or your child’s, thinking about the future of humanity gets a little anxious. I think that’s understandable.
Existential anxiety does not fit the standard definition of trauma, as it is not a direct threat to life or threat to one’s physical integrity or a sexual offense. Trauma leaders would say, no, that’s not really traumatic. It can be stressful and scary, but it’s not traumatic because it can trigger PTSD.
That said, we know from disasters, terrorist attacks and the pandemic that consumption of media, seeing images of places affected by disasters, especially graphics, can lead to symptoms very similar to post-traumatic stress, including nightmares, avoidance, exaggerated startle response, sleep disturbances, etc.
We don’t want people to bury their heads in the sand. We do want the reality of climate change to affect people. So I wouldn’t say, you know, avoid information about climate change altogether. I often say, get the facts and move on. You don’t have to read every article about the same story. If it’s troubling, know when to intervene, but also know when to stop.
The existential threat of climate change, learning about the consequences of climate change, can lead to very intense emotions, feelings of sadness and sadness, fear, fear of the future. There is ecological sadness, or a deep sense of sadness and despair about the changing ecosystem. There is solastalgia, which is a feeling of nostalgia for your home environment. Someone defined it as homesick, when you are actually at home. So being in your home environment and seeing the changes that have happened due to climate change and being sad about it. And then there is the fear of climate change.
Validating people’s emotions is very important. Sometimes older generations want to say that the younger generations are so sensitive and that they blow things out of proportion. Really take the time to listen to younger people about their concerns. And also just recognize that it’s okay and completely right to be sad about losses in ecosystems, to be concerned about the future of humanity, to have these feelings. So, let people have their feelings, and also try to empower them to take action to deal with their feelings.
A girl plays with sand during a protest by the Cornwall Climate Youth Alliance in conjunction with Fridays for Future and Climate Live, at Gyllyngvase Beach, in Falmouth, on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall, UK, June 11, 2021.
Tom Nicholson | Reuters
When anxiety becomes a clinical problem
It’s sad to see a landscape change. The disappearance of natural beauty is objectively sad. It is frightening to think that there will come a time when the earth will be uninhabitable for humans. That’s creepy. Those are extremely valid feelings. It is important to distinguish between those valid feelings and clinical disorders. There is a line that can be crossed where fear of climate change can turn into an anxiety disorder.
People should watch out for signs that they are in extreme distress and that their feelings of sadness, grief, anger, and fear are interfering with their lives and functioning and their ability to participate in their lives and also be active in it. combating climate change.
Watch for signs of the following: Is your appetite upset? Can’t sleep? Do you feel uncomfortable around other people? Are you able to get out of bed?
If you can’t go to work or classes at all, or if you’re there completely absorbed in your anxiety and not performing as you normally would, that’s a sign that their anxiety is clinical in nature. If your friends and family have noticed that you seem sad or anxious or that you are distracted or irritated, get into arguments more often, or don’t really want to spend time with people, and want to isolate yourself, that could be a sign. If you are so upset that it leads to somatic symptoms, such as being unable to rest, falling asleep, and staying asleep, you will lose your appetite. And especially if you have thoughts about death, dying, self-harm – those are warning signs.
All of these signs of a clinical disorder can indicate that you may want to seek help and process your thoughts and feelings about climate change and anything else in your life that contributes to it. We don’t want people to be so anxious that they can’t function.
Fear serves a purpose. And it can prompt action. In the limited research I’ve done on climate change fears, the people who are most active are anxious, but they don’t necessarily have generalized anxiety disorder or depressive symptoms. And in fact, in preliminary research we’ve done, environmentalism can prevent climate change fears from manifesting as clinical depression.
Young protesters take part in the Fridays For Future rally in Glasgow, Scotland on November 5, 2021, during COP26 climate summit.
Daniel Leal Olivas | AFP | Getty Images
In climate activism, think about helping the most vulnerable.
Feeling that your action makes a difference can lead to a sense of choice and empowerment. Joining a community can also foster a sense of collective effectiveness and social support, so you know there are other people out there who share your values and work together to make change.
We asked some open questions with young people and in interviews. What gets really tricky is when people sometimes rightly acknowledge that their collective actions may not make a difference, that this problem is bigger than they are, and relies on people in high power making big changes that they may not want for whatever reason. to make. That can be very overwhelming and discouraging, but at the same time, I think collective action, as we’ve seen with other social movements, makes a difference. It’s just… it can be slow.