Yale Psychologist: How to Cope in a World of Climate Disasters, Trauma and Anxiety

Photo courtesy Jeffrey R. Moran
  • Sarah Lowe is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Yale School of Public Health, and she spoke with CNBC about climate trauma and climate anxiety.
  • Climate change disasters can cause trauma. Communities, individuals and organizations should do what they can to prepare for potential disasters.
  • Climate change anxiety results in intense emotions that are valid. Lowe shares advice for when to recognize that anxiety has become problematic.

Climate change is changing how human beings live on the 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 how human beings think about their own existence.

Both kinds of distress — the acute trauma of immediate disasters and the background sense of existential doom — require different responses, both personal and from society.

Sarah Lowe is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at Yale School of Public Health, and she spoke with CNBC about both of these impacts on human wellness.

The following are excerpts of Lowe's conversation with CNBC. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Climate disasters and trauma

Virtually every state has been affected by some sort of climate change exposure, whether it's a weather related disaster, or a wildfire, tornado or whatnot.

Disasters are fundamentally stressful. And for some people, they can be traumatic both directly — by leading to direct threats to one's life, for serious injuries, bereavement, destruction of one's property — or indirectly. We know (and this is true with the pandemic as well, just as an aside) that when people are faced with stressful situations, some people who might have a tendency for aggression and violence can be tipped due to stress.

Rates of child abuse and intimate partner violence and things like that tend to increase in the aftermath of disasters, as well as extreme heat, so that's another form of trauma that happen in the aftermath of disasters.

Gypsy Rick smokes a cigarette outside of a cooling shelter during a heat wave in Portland, Oregon, U.S., August 11, 2021.REUTERS/Mathieu Lewis-Rolland
Gypsy Rick smokes a cigarette outside of a cooling shelter during a heat wave in Portland, Oregon, U.S., August 11, 2021.REUTERS/Mathieu Lewis-Rolland

For people who don't face serious life threats, it is stressful if if part of your property floods or your property or possessions get damaged, or if you have to evacuate for an unknown period of time — that is very disruptive, especially with the idea that this could be a regular thing that you have to deal with.

In terms of the mental health consequences, we know that PTSD can result from disasters. Disasters are also associated with increased rates of a variety of psychiatric conditions and symptoms: depression, generalized anxiety, substance use, disruptions and health behaviors, like healthy eating and exercise. And these can all have downstream impacts on mental health in the long term.

There are the physical consequences of disasters such as exposure to mold or to wildfire smoke. The sedentary behavior that might come from disruptions and routines can trigger physical health ailments or increase the risk of them — that then are intertwined with mental health. In addition to the direct traumas of disasters, they can have other mental health consequences that might not be as obvious.

Preparing for a direct climate change disaster

One thing that is key is preparation at many different levels to the extent that people are able. It's all tied into the social determinants of health like income, housing and employment. Some people, when their house gets flooded, they can invest in systems like generators, like sump pumps, to prevent that from happening again, whereas other people can't do that.

At the individual level, do what you can. That could be having a plan in place for if something like this happens again: Where are we going to go? Planning is exerting some sense of control.

At the community level, investing in infrastructure to shield people from exposure, whether that's creating housing that's able to withstand a disaster or not creating housing in low lying areas, investing in generators, having plans in place to evacuate whole communities together, building trust between government entities and community leaders and organizations. As much as we can shield people from the really traumatic exposures that happen during disasters, the better it will be for mental health.

A home is seen destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Delta in Creole, Louisiana, U.S., October 10, 2020. Picture taken with a drone.
Adrees Latif | Reuters
A home is seen destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Delta in Creole, Louisiana, U.S., October 10, 2020. Picture taken with a drone.

Readying yourself should also include a sense of trust in one's community and one's government that they're not going to put their residents at risk. That's really tricky, because it's all really expensive, and if you invest in one thing it means you can't invest in other things, but I think it's really important.

Companies need to be preparing too, especially if they're going to be providing essential services during disasters, but also, you know, taking care of your employees, because we know that one of the stronger predictors of mental health after disasters are these longer term stressors, like losing one's job, or financial stress. We spoke to people who experienced Hurricane Katrina, and a lot of them had companies that really, they felt, looked out for them, that gave them financial assistance, or if there were a national chain, for example, hooked them up with a job in the community that they were displaced 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 exposures. So making sure that people have their basic needs met — that they have good housing, that they're able to find gainful employment, that they have health care, that they have access to mental health services and that they're covered, that people are not working 100 hours a week and not getting by. All of those things are going to make for a healthier society, and are really important, so that's at the policy level.

At the more community and individual level, we need to be doing things to foster resilience of children, adolescents, and families. In school, that means building in a socio-emotional curriculum to foster the psychological capacities that promote resilience — a sense of agency, goal-orientation, hope, social social skills and social support, a sense of purpose, emotion regulation. All these capacities we know are really important, in addition to all of the academic skills that are important too. Although I say that acknowledging that that there's a lot of pressure put on schools and teachers already.

So we need to find ways to integrate that into that family life, into communities, organizations, after-school programs and religious congregations, too, so really working towards a trauma-informed and healthy and resilient population. That's going to be really important for us as we deal with these increasingly complex and intense stressors.

Take time and space to care for yourself, whether that means exercising, meditating, meditating, spending time in nature. That's that's really important to build resilience.

Ecological grief, solastalgia, climate change anxiety

We have to distinguish between the traumatic stressors that can happen because of disasters, or other climate-change-related exposures or displacement, and this free flowing climate-change anxiety — we know this is happening, it's scary, it's sad, and what do we do about that at a bigger scale?

It's definitely an existential threat. People talk a lot about not only their own futures, but making childbearing decisions. Am I going to have kids and bring them into a world that is burning? I think that's a valid concern. Whether that's going to happen in your lifetime or your child's lifetime, thinking about the future of the human race gets a little bit anxiety-provoking. I think that's understandable.

Existential anxiety does not fit the standard definition of trauma, because it's not a direct life threat or threat to one's physical integrity or a sexual violation. Leaders in the trauma field would say, no, that's not actually traumatic. It might be stressful and anxiety provoking, but it's not a traumatic in that it can trigger PTSD.

That being said, we know from disasters, terrorist attacks and the pandemic that consumption of media, seeing images of places that are affected by disasters, especially graphic images, can lead to symptoms that are very much consistent with post traumatic stress, including nightmares, avoidance, an exaggerated startle response, disruptions in sleep, etc.

We don't want people to have their heads in the sand. We do want the reality of climate change to hit with people. So I would not say, you know, avoid any information about climate change at all. I often say, get the facts and move on. You don't need to read every single article about the same story. If it's distressing, know when to engage, but also know when to disengage.

The existential threat of climate change, learning about the impacts of climate change, can can lead to a lot of really intense emotions, feelings of grief and sadness, anxiety, fear for one's future. There is ecological grief, or feeling a deep sense of sadness and despair at the changing ecosystem. There is solastalgia, which is a feeling of nostalgia for your home environment. Someone defined it as homesickness, when you're actually at home. So being in your home environment and seeing the changes that have happened due to climate change and feeling sad about that. And then climate change anxiety.

Validating people's emotions is really important. Sometimes older generations want to say the younger generations are so sensitive and they're blowing things out of proportion. Really take the time to listen to younger people about what their concerns are. And also just recognize that it is okay, and completely valid, to be to be sad about losses in ecosystems, to be anxious about the future of humanity, to have these feelings. So, let people have their feelings, and try to also empower them to take action to to cope with their feelings.

A girl plays with sand during a protest of the Cornwall Climate Youth Alliance in partnership with Fridays for Future and Climate Live, at Gyllyngvase Beach, in Falmouth, on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall, Britain, June 11, 2021.
Tom Nicholson | Reuters
A girl plays with sand during a protest of the Cornwall Climate Youth Alliance in partnership with Fridays for Future and Climate Live, at Gyllyngvase Beach, in Falmouth, on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall, Britain, June 11, 2021.

When anxiety turns into a clinical problem

It's sad to see a landscape changing. Natural beauty dissipating is objectively sad. It is scary to think there might be a time when the earth is uninhabitable for human beings. That is scary. Those are extremely valid feelings. It's important to distinguish between those valid feelings and clinical disorders. There is a line that can be crossed where climate change anxiety can turn into an anxiety disorder.

People need to watch out for signs that they are in extreme distress, and that their feelings of sadness, grief, anger, anxiety are getting in the way of their lives and functioning and their ability to engage in their lives and also be active in combatting climate change.

Look for signs the following: Is your appetite disrupted? Are you not able to sleep? Are you feeling uncomfortable being around other people? Are you able to get out of bed?

If you are unable to go to work or to your classes at all, or, if when you're there, you're totally preoccupied by your anxiety and not performing as you usually would, that's a sign their anxiety is clinical in nature. If your friends and family have noticed that you seem sad or anxious or you're distracted or irritable, getting into more fights, or you don't really want to spend time with people, and you want to self isolate, that would be a sign. If you are so distressed that it's leading to somatic symptoms, such as you're unable to get rest, to fall asleep and stay asleep, you've lost your appetite. And certainly if you're having thoughts of death, dying, self injury — those are like warning signs.

All these signs of a clinical disorder might indicate you might want to seek help and process your thoughts and feelings about climate change, and whatever else in your life is contributing to that. We don't want people so anxious that they can't function.

Anxiety serves a purpose. And it can motivate action. In the limited research I've done on climate change anxiety, the people who are the most active are anxious, but they're not necessarily having generalized anxiety disorder or depressive symptoms. And in fact, in preliminary research we've done, environmental activism can prevent climate change anxiety from manifesting as clinical depression.

Young protesters take part in the Fridays For Future rally in Glasgow, Scotland on November 5, 2021, during climate summit COP26.
Daniel Leal-Olivas | AFP | Getty Images
Young protesters take part in the Fridays For Future rally in Glasgow, Scotland on November 5, 2021, during climate summit COP26.

When engaging in climate activism, think about helping those who are most vulnerable.

If you feel like your action is making a difference, that can lead to a sense of like agency and empowerment. Engaging in a community can also foster a sense of collective efficacy and social support so you know there are other people who are share your values and who are working together to make changes.

We've done a little bit of open-ended questions with young people and in interviews. What gets really tricky is when people sometimes rightly recognize that their collective actions might not make a difference, that this problem is bigger than them, and relies on people with a lot of power making major changes that maybe they're for whatever reason not willing to make. That can be very overwhelming and disheartening, but at the same time I do think engaging in collective action, we've seen in other social movements does make a difference. It's just ... it can be slow.

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