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Leah Temple Lang / Gavel Media

How Climate Change Challenges the Psyche

Apocalypse certainly isn’t new to the human psyche. Threats of nuclear warfare, terrorism, and disease have plagued our collective mental health for years. However, one particular peril seems to be looming in people’s minds more than any other.

A recent study from the Journal of Climate Change and Health has pointed at the impact of environmental distress on collective levels of anxiety. The study framed itself around the 2021 Western North American Heat Dome, which marked record temperatures in the Pacific Northwest. With temperatures rising above 110° Fahrenheit, residents of this area came face-to-face with one of the most tangible signs of climate change North America has faced. The study surveyed approximately 900 participants across British Columbia and utilized the Climate Change Anxiety Scale (CCAS) to examine levels of climate anxiety pre and post-heat dome. It aimed at addressing the influence that extreme weather events could have on local mental health. 

Average anxiety levels on the scale jumped by about 40% for a majority of participants, marking a massive increase in climate-related anxiety after the events of the heat dome. These increases were exacerbated in people personally attached to and influenced by the climate through their industry, geography, and other connections. The study demonstrates how, when faced with tangible effects of climate change, general concern regarding environmental damage can quickly turn into real anxiety. Furthermore, with more extreme weather events predicted for the future, this trend may quickly become dangerous.

The study certainly isn’t the first to examine climate worry. It simply demonstrates the clinical impact of an increase in environmental anxiety that has been spotted by surveys for years. Whether it manifests as a general increase in concern across thousands of young people or a case of debilitating climate anxiety in an individual patient, fears surrounding environmental catastrophe have mental health impacts on all levels. Distant fears of a warming Earth are quickly progressing into immediate dread.

The numbers are convincing, but one may question what distinguishes climate change from the other familiar catastrophes humanity has faced. If our collective psyche could withstand the nuclear imminence of the Cold War or the security concerns of 9/11, what makes climate change different?

As demonstrated by the heat dome study among others of its kind, fears of climate change differ in their tangibility and inevitability. Unlike many other apocalyptic threats, environmental damage isn’t a distant or sudden disaster left to chance. For those with climate anxiety, it’s a slow and observable decay present in everything we consume. Climate anxiety is, therefore, more generalized and straining.

However, some attribute this unique level of anxiety to other factors beyond climate change itself. One that most likely plays a role is the prevalence of social media and our newfound hyperconnectivity. Exposure to the media is constant and almost obligatory; everywhere we look, someone is yelling about the end of the world. Therefore, some argue that climate fears are over-exaggerated and not innately unique to the environment.

This potential over-exaggeration becomes even more prevalent through its racial implications. Scholars such as Sarah Jacquette Ray voice concern regarding the overwhelmingly white response to climate anxiety. Though climate change undoubtedly concerns indigenous communities of color the most, discussions of climate anxiety primarily consist of white voices. Some propose that white overreaction regarding climate anxiety takes away from the more important aspects of environmental distress. It is important for more privileged populations to consider how they can help rather than how they are personally harmed. We must focus on highlighting the voices of those most vulnerable to climate change.

From a social standpoint, this skepticism is certainly warranted. However, from a medical perspective, the validity of climate concerns is irrelevant. Whether or not one’s worries about the climate are valid, their anxiety remains the same. No matter its actual significance, climate anxiety must receive proper treatment and attention.

One way mental health professionals aim to treat such anxieties is through exploring alternative therapies. While current psychological treatment for anxiety centers around cognitive-behavioral therapy, patients such as Alina Black aren’t finding relief through traditional methods. Most classic practices of mental health involve tackling anxiety from an individual accountability approach, motivating and encouraging patients to overcome their problems independently through introspection. However, psychologists such as Thomas Doherty propose a different strategy for climate worries. Doherty aims to shift patients away from taking accountability for the entire climate and towards appreciating the world around them, even the parts they can’t save. 

Regardless of whether climate anxiety is as socially significant as we think, the clinical dangers posed by environmental damage introduce a new challenge to psychologists. Therapies and treatments must expand beyond traditional introspection and address our collective struggle to protect the Earth.