Climate Anxiety (with Dr. Thomas Doherty)

Avoiding climate news? Do thoughts of the apocalypse keep you up at night? Feeling guilty about unsustainable habits? With climate change becoming a stark reality, more and more of us are grappling with anxiety over our planet’s environmental crisis. Today, environmental psychologist Thomas Doherty sheds light on the emerging field of climate-conscious therapy — a response to this very real mental health impact. He explains how therapists are equipping themselves to counsel those struggling with climate anxiety, and how people can restructure their ‘pyramid of issues’ to create healthier coping mechanisms that will help them navigate these challenging times. You’ll hear about the three-pronged mental health impact of climate change: the direct disaster effects, far-reaching social implications, and the indirect repercussions. You’ll also learn strategies to help you express your environmental values and narratives so you can feel more empowered to get out there and do something.

Resources about Thomas Doherty:

Citations and further reading:


Ashley: There have been a few times that I’ve believed that this, this moment right here must be the moment that changes our minds on climate change.

Ashley: One was in 2017, which saw the costliest hurricane damage on record. It felt like anytime you glanced at the news, another hurricane was causing unbelievable destruction. First Harvey in Texas, then Irma in the Caribbean, then Maria in Puerto Rico. I remember thinking, well, at least people will stop saying that climate change isn’t real.

Ashley: They didn’t.

Ashley: Another was, okay, this is probably naive of me, but when a 16 year old Greta Thunberg gave that fiery speech at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. You know when she was like, You come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You’ve stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.

Ashley: I remember thinking finally, this will make everyone realize that it’s more than just an election cycle issue. It’s affecting future generations. It didn’t.

Ashley: The last was in 2020. I don’t have to tell you that that was the year that saw a triple crisis of a global pandemic without a cure, a record-breaking slew of weather disasters, including a devastating wildfire across the Western United States and the murder of George Floyd, which sparked protests for racial justice across the globe. I remember feeling like the world was ending, but if it didn’t end, I thought, of course this would wake people up to the problems in our world. It did, a little.

Ashley: Seeing a threat like climate change just advance toward our destruction without the people in power saying, yes, this is serious, here’s the well-researched plan we have to take care of it? And not only that, to have the people around you shrug it off as inevitable and change the subject? That can take a toll on your mental health. Which can feel like a minor thing to worry about when there are floods and wildfires and people dying, right?

Ashley: But at scale, it’s serious. If we’re all feeling demoralized, hopeless, avoidant, or seized with anxiety, we aren’t equipped to take action in our own neighborhoods and demand action of leaders across the world.

Ashley: Today we’re gonna talk about the emotions around climate change. What they are, why you feel them, why we don’t talk about them, and what you can do to change all that.

Ashley: I’m Ashley Hamer, and this is Taboo Science, the podcast that answers the questions you’re not allowed to ask.

Ashley: Climate anxiety is kind of a unique concept in psychology. It’s defined as distress about climate change, whatever form that takes, maybe it’s persistent worries that make it hard to sleep or study, intrusive thoughts about the annihilation of our species, or an obsession over your individual choices that makes it hard to maintain relationships.

Ashley: If it interferes with your life, it’s something to address. But the reason climate anxiety is kind of unique is that it’s not necessarily irrational. Our planet is under threat. Our species could be annihilated. In 2019, New Scientist editor Graham Lawton pointed out that quote, what we are witnessing isn’t a tsunami of mental illness, but a long overdue outbreak of sanity.

Ashley: What’s irrational is the culture of silence around this global crisis. It’s happening all around us, and yet it’s the rare social situation where it’s okay to talk about it.

Thomas Doherty: It can be a taboo topic depending the group and the people. That and social isolation caused by that is one of the biggest factors in people’s troubling situations around anxiety and grief. ‘Cause they feel not only the feelings, but then they feel unsupported and cut off.

Ashley: That’s Thomas Doherty.

Thomas Doherty: I am a psychologist. I have a kind of a unique specialty in that I am a, both a clinical psychologist and also an environmental psychologist. An environmental psychologist is is someone who would study people’s relationship with nature and built in natural spaces.

Thomas Doherty: And I live in Portland, Oregon, and lately my work has focused on people’s thoughts and feelings about climate change and other environmental issues.

Ashley: It might be surprising to know that there are psychologists that specialize in climate change. I mean, I was surprised. And if you’re surprised by that, you’ll be even more surprised to know that since 2009, the American Psychological Association has assembled an annual climate change task force to look into every aspect of the issue and make recommendations to clinicians and policy makers.

Ashley: Thomas happened to be on that first task force.

Ashley: But it’s more than research and policy recommendations. Climate conscious therapists help individuals too.

Thomas Doherty: The people that are most vulnerable to, you know, eco anxiety or distress or grief or loss around climate or environmental issues are people that are highly environmentally minded, that have very strong environmental values that really see themselves as deeply connected with nature and the natural world personally, either through their background or because of their profession. Say they’re conservation scientist or something like that. So those people are gonna be at a higher risk in general. And traditionally those would’ve been the folks that would’ve needed help with concerns around environmental issues.

Thomas Doherty: But now that climate change has broken big in our lives in the last several years with major disasters and heat and flooding and all the things that we’re dealing with these days, now it’s, it’s a very mainstream concern and it cuts across all kinds of demographics of people that normally wouldn’t have been seen as environmentalists.

Thomas Doherty: So it’s no longer just an environmentalist problem. It’s an everyone’s problem.

Ashley: And just like when a new disorder is added to the DSM, therapists are taking stock of how the field is changing and they’re hitting the books.

Thomas Doherty: There’s a whole movement of what’s called climate conscious therapy and essentially, much like any other new issue, therapists are training themselves up to be helpful to people that are coming in with concerns about heat waves, wildfires, flooding, disasters, and also the constant drumbeat in the news of new findings and potential tipping points and things like that. So the therapists are both experiencing this themselves. Right. They’re experiencing as regular citizens the effects of heat waves and fires and smoke, and much like learning about a new disorder or diagnosis, they’re also training themselves up to be receptive to people who are coming in with these concerns.

Thomas Doherty: So there’s been a kind of a permission given, I think is one way to think about it for people to talk about this more. And a lot of people are pleasantly surprised when they realize, oh, I can actually talk about these concerns with my therapist.

Ashley: It can feel indulgent to experience anxiety about the state of the world and call a therapist rather than say your senator. Not that it’s either or, but you get my drift. Worrying about your own feelings about a disaster seems kind of selfish when there’s, you know, a disaster happening. But I’ll stress again that taking care of you is the first step to taking care of the problem.

Thomas Doherty: If we want to make change, In the world or be a part of solution, we do need to take care of ourselves. We were a part of the system and it, part of it is, is pulling back on the anxiety response because that’s a physiological response.

Thomas Doherty: As we get anxious, as I say, our anxiety thermometer rises, then our, our sort of bandwidth of, of consciousness contracts, and we get highly focused, which is very helpful in the middle of an actual emergency. It’s very helpful to be highly focused, but, in the world, that constricted view can really be problematic.

Ashley: Humans have weird reactions to high levels of fear and anxiety, and one big one is denial. And I’m not necessarily talking about outright climate change denial, although that can be an unfortunate result too. I’m talking thoughts like, nature might die, but humans will be fine. Someone will invent the technology to save us. Or it’s caused by other countries, it’s not our fault.

Ashley: When we don’t deny, we minimize by saying it’s only a problem in the future or in other countries. Or we intellectualize by reading and watching documentaries and listening to podcasts on it, but not actually feeling our feelings or changing our actions. Or we just go straight for hopelessness.

Ashley: The source I’m getting this from, a 2021 paper in BJ Psych Bulletin by Joseph Dodds, also points out that even some activism can be an anxiety coping strategy. Another reaction to anxiety is seeking distraction through addictive behaviors and burying yourself in activist work can absolutely help distract you from your feelings. But it can also make you burn out and lose your ability to help. Everything in balance.

Ashley: That’s the stuff that happens in your own head in reaction to climate change. But there are also pressures coming from the outside.

Thomas Doherty: People have been raising consciousness about this, this splitting of, we’re a part of a system, a system of industry and capitalism that is based on extraction of resources and creation of, of garbage and creation of pollution and externalizing, the negative impacts of industries and the proliferation of plastics and, obviously with climate change and, and carbon emissions and even now, still the message that everything is fine. This is the way things are supposed to go and don’t be an alarmist.

Ashley: And that can make people feel like they’re the only ones distressed by the situation. That kind of suffering in silence has a name.

Thomas Doherty: The issue with environmental losses is it’s often what they call disenfranchised grief where it isn’t recognized and there isn’t a ritual about it as there would in other areas.

Ashley: Like when a relative dies, you take time off and people send you flowers. When a pet dies, life goes on as normal. When your house burns down, people offer you money and belongings and a place to stay. When the earth is burning, okay, so what? Here’s a tiny violin playing the saddest song for you.

Thomas Doherty: Part of the way of dealing with our grief is enfranchising it, which is giving it a place, honoring it, doing some sort of rituals, talking about it, getting support, sharing it. Because again, it’s a normal and natural feeling.

Ashley: One theory for why humanity has been so slow to act on climate change is that it’s the perfect threat to slip through our usual emotional defenses. Humans have evolved to respond to threats that are immediate, visible, and fast. With simple cause and effect that lets us clearly see how it’ll affect us.

Ashley: Climate change is none of those. It’s hard to see on the micro level. It’s incredibly slow and its effects are super complex. It causes everything from melting ice caps to bumpier flights, seriously. So if you feel like climate change is too big to comprehend, that’s a valid feeling too.

Thomas Doherty: There’s a term called a hyper object from the philosopher Timothy Morton that’s been popularized related to climate change. This idea that climate change is this huge overarching phenomenon that is both outside of ourselves and inside of ourselves, and we can’t really get out of it to get a perspective. Or, social scientists talk about these idea of wicked problems, which are essentially huge, multifaceted problems that are a combination of a bunch of problems. So climate change is a wicked problem ’cause it’s a combination of both, know, physiological changes to the weather, but our economic system and carbon emissions and politics and poverty.

Thomas Doherty: You cannot solve a wicked problem. You can engage with it ’cause it’s multiple problems. And sometimes solving one piece of the issue will actually make another piece worse. That is the reality of climate change. It is a big issue that we need to learn to be with and to respect and to understand and to kind of apprentice ourselves to this issue to keep learning it.

Thomas Doherty: No one is an expert on climate change. Even if you’re nominally an expert in some aspect of it, like a climate scientist, that doesn’t mean you’re an expert on refugees or people’s emotional experiences or what’s happening in a certain neighborhood. So we’re all humble in the face of climate change.

Thomas Doherty: But we have to make sure that that doesn’t become a cop out and an excuse for not taking action. Just because we don’t know the whole, doesn’t mean we can’t know a, a part of it and still take action with what we know.

Ashley: Because climate change is such a multifaceted problem, there are a lot of things to worry about. There’s the future of our planet, the future of our species. Natural disasters and the suffering they cause. The loss of our favorite places and past times, losses to the economy, changes to our way of life.

Ashley: Combine that with all the other problems going on in the world, it’s a lot to hold on your shoulders. Thomas worked with a ton of people on this kind of thing in 2020. You probably remember the time.

Thomas Doherty: We had a terrible summer in Oregon, Portland. We had heat, extreme heat, we had smoke from nearby wildfires that were quite close to the city that were blanketing the city in a dark haze. And every once in a while, if the wind shifted, ash would float over and float down. And it was warm and hot and smoky, and it was very apocalyptic feeling.

Thomas Doherty: And it was during the height of the pandemic. So people had already been cooped up, you know, in terms of social distancing and isolation, and then they couldn’t go outdoors, because there was the dangers of the air quality and it was also, the election and there was Black Lives Matter protests downtown in Portland. And we were sort of a, for a while, an international site of kind of protests, and kind of clashes regarding those issues.

Thomas Doherty: And so people were just under this huge weight and what I called, it was a, a pyramid. It was like an upside down pyramid. There’s this huge, pyramid like over the top of us pointing at us, and we had just a, a little triangle of resources and we’re trying to balance this immense pyramid of issues.

Ashley: So Thomas would help people flip that pyramid over and work on building their own foundation of resources that would let them face these issues in a healthier way.

Thomas Doherty: We get upside down essentially. Like, we’ll, on any given day we might feel sort of upside down when we, we have inadequate resources to the tasks that the world is giving us. And then that’s, that’s the cue to say, let me come back, focus on my foundation. Basic bricks of our foundation, sleep, diet, exercise, social support, family, my daily work, my children, my pets, you know, my spirituality, whatever. And then our special bricks, our different pastimes or vocations and things like that.

Ashley: What are the best ways that you have found to make people feel less hopeless and less afraid?

Thomas Doherty: Yeah. When I’m working with people, what I remind myself is this catchphrase of validate, elevate, and create. That’s how I sort of center myself when I’m working with someone.

Thomas Doherty: Validating their concerns, whatever their concerns are whatever their level of information, let, yes, let’s make sure that you understand that this is important.

Thomas Doherty: Then elevate it, which is really interesting and radical because most people are used to thinking of their environmental concerns as second or third, or fourth or fifth level compared to other things. And no, let’s make this the most important. It’s fairly rational to think of climate change as the most important issue in our lives, particularly during a disaster. It’s more important than our jobs. It’s more important than a lot of other things. And that can be really liberating for people.

Thomas Doherty: And then creative, get creative. As we talked about earlier, a lot of our responses to climate change is around anxiety and kind of constriction and sense of alarm and urgency. So, smuggling in some positive emotions early on with this idea of creativity is really strategic, right?

Thomas Doherty: ‘Cause let’s get creative about it. How did you learn about this? What is the issue? What does it, what do you feel? So we get into how do you think about these things? It’s classic psychology stuff. You know, are you catastrophizing? Where are you getting your evidence? You know, are you focusing on the big picture or just the small picture?

Thomas Doherty: And then what do you feel? What feelings do you have? Both positive and negative. And also what do you want to feel? What feelings would you like to have, you know, uh, and helping people to what I say, exercise their emotions and working with different emotions.

Thomas Doherty: And that, that sets the stage for a deeper dive into, well, how exactly does climate change affect you personally? Outside of the news and outside of what you’re reading, what’s your own? I call it your own IPCC report. So that’s making reference to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But I call it your Individual Problems with Climate Change report.

Ashley: That is very cute.

Ashley: But of course, this isn’t one size fits all. We’ve about how there are a lot of different ways people react to stress and anxiety, and likewise, there are a lot of different ways climate change can hit us emotionally.

Thomas Doherty: part of the research that I have done in the past is around mental health impacts, and there’s basically three kinds of impacts from climate change and other environmental issues.

Thomas Doherty: There’s the direct disaster impacts, which are kind of obvious to see.

Ashley: This includes stuff like PTSD from a traumatic weather event, like getting stuck in a flood or a hurricane, depression from losing a home or a loved one, or losing so much that you have suicidal thoughts. It can even include the effects of heat waves, which lead to higher rates of homicide and domestic abuse.

Thomas Doherty: Then there are the broad social impacts of refugees and economic problems and all those kinds of things.

Ashley: We’re talking things like conflicts over dwindling resources, relocation due to a climate disaster in your home region, or even resentment over growing economic inequality.

Thomas Doherty: And then there’s the mental health impacts of just observing from afar, even if you’re safe for the moment or have not had a disaster visited on you.

Ashley: These are most of the feelings we’re talking about in this episode. The anxiety, worry, sadness, hopelessness, apathy, avoidance, and anger you feel overseeing climate disasters in the news or when making choices that could affect the environment.

Thomas Doherty: And that’s a place to start. And what, what kind of impacts are you experiencing?

Thomas Doherty: So for a lot of people it’s a combination. And for some it may be highly focused on disasters. For others, they’re just sitting and watching this from a distance and really being concerned.

Thomas Doherty: But you know, really giving people language to talk about this because they’re not given any tools. And then later on, I, I get into people’s values and their environmental story and why they care about nature, which is another important piece that’s often missing.

Thomas Doherty: ’cause people aren’t taught to really articulate their values and that actually builds people’s foundation for coping later. So there’s, there’s kind of a, there’s a method that you can do with this.

Ashley: I don’t know what my issue is with this, and maybe I’m not alone, I cannot stop from asking for advice when I’m talking to a therapist socially. It’s like the emotional version of asking a doctor about a skin growth at a party. but hey, this isn’t a social situation where I need to seem like a well adjusted human. This is a podcast, so I asked. It’s for your benefit, I swear.

Ashley: I mean, I, you know what, I’m just gonna say, what’s your advice to me?

Ashley: Because, uh, my, my whole thing is like, I, I write a lot about science. I feel like I am pretty knowledgeable about climate change and I also feel like it’s my identity to, to be doing something about it and to caring to care a lot about it, and yet, I, I just had a baby.

Ashley: And I’m, I mean, like she’s, she’s a year old, so, you know, um, and it feels like it’s too hard to worry about that right now because so much is going on in my life. And also it just feels very scary. It feels like I have a, a like, what is her future gonna be like, all these things, right? And so I find it very easy to just avoid, to just not think about it at all.

Ashley: Um, so someone in my boat that’s just being avoidant about this stuff, what is your advice?

Thomas Doherty: Yeah, I mean, Ashley, I would say, um, part of your job is to learn to tell your own eco story, your own story of your life in relation to nature and the natural world and your values. And also just to honor where you are in your story right now.

Thomas Doherty: So you might have any kind of background. And you know, if we had time we could go through your, where you grew up and your childhood and your travel and educational experiences and your life experiences that led you to what you do and your adult, uh, sense of yourself and what. What I would call your environmental identity, which is your, your sense of identity, you know, you, your unique sense of identity regarding nature in the natural world.

Thomas Doherty: We all have an environmental identity, just like our cultural identity or sexual identity, gender identity. But we have to be taught to talk about it. And then, where are we in that story? Now you are, you’re in the story as a professional person who’s still doing her career, but also also being a mom and having a young child. You have specific jobs and specific mandates right now. And that’s where you need to be.

Thomas Doherty: So, there’s always a frontline of action and activity and activism. And you might have been on the frontline in the past, but you know, you’re, what is, what is your duties now? Knowing that your duties will continue to evolve and, and change and grow.

Thomas Doherty: So it’s, it’s, it’s helping people to embrace where they are now. There’s no, wrong place to be. I. Where are we in our life in terms of our environmental story and how could we just be the best we we can where we are? obviously there the responsibility.

Thomas Doherty: I’m a parent as well, and the responsibility of raising a young child is, is our, one of our most important environmental tasks and helping that young person to develop their own healthy sense of environmental identity and value. So, being where we are now in our environmental story and honoring that.

Thomas Doherty: Does that, does that make sense?

Ashley: Yeah. Absolutely. And I can, I can see again how it just, it all leads back to just giving you that foundation, ridding yourself of the, the baggage that’s keeping you from being able to take action, um, before you can actually take action.

Thomas Doherty: Yeah. The climate change, unfortunately is not going away in our lifetime. It’s going to be an issue and, you know, I believe it’s gonna be difficult and challenging, but I do believe there’s, I know there are so many good people because of my work doing so many interesting things all around the world, and I, I focus on that and being a part of that group.

Ashley: There is good news to be found in these negative emotions. If you can get them to a reasonable place so they’re not interfering with your life and your sleep and the day-to-day stuff you need to thrive, emotions like anxiety can actually push you to take action on climate change. According to a 2022 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, people who reported feeling at least one type of climate distress are more likely to take action, like donating money or volunteering at an organization working on climate change.

Ashley: And they’re also more likely to discuss climate change with family and friends. So if you’re worried about the planet, feel those feelings. Acknowledge them and make sure your own needs are being taken care of. Then let them push you to make a difference.

Ashley: Thanks for for listening. Extra thanks to Thomas Doherty who was so generous to provide his time and expertise. You can learn more about his research and his podcast, Climate Change and Happiness, that’s a title, in the show notes.

Ashley: Taboo Science was written and produced by me, Ashley Hamer. The theme was by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music. Episode music is from Epidemic Sound. There’s an affiliate link in the show notes if you wanna use them yourself.

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Ashley: We’ve only got a couple of episodes left in the season and they’re gonna be so good. Stay tuned. I won’t tell anyone.