In graduate school, we would-be therapists talked about family dynamics, negative self-talk, adverse childhood experiences, and faulty neurons as the sources of our clients’ distress. We learned to focus quickly and intently in sessions on the inner challenges they faced, and to avoid time-wasting discussions of everyday life, especially anything mundane, like the weather. No, we were never to talk of the weather!
Fast-forward to today, and we find the world consumed in previously unimaginable ways with the shifting climate and the ways it’s threatening the world’s ecosystems and societies. Therapists the world over are contending with the best ways to make room for our clients’ climate anxieties.
For decades, Elizabeth Allured, who grew up in the smog-filled Los Angeles of the ’60s, has been helping people face the mental health implications of the climate crisis head-on. A psychologist teaching at Adelphi University’s Derner Institute and cofounder of the Climate Psychology Alliance–North America, she works to address the psychological dimensions of the crisis, not only with clients, but with fellow therapists.
Ryan Howes: How did the specialty of climate psychology begin?
Elizabeth Allured: Harold Searles, a psychiatrist in the 1960s, started to look at how we’re affected by what he called the “nonhuman world.” Thirty years ago, around the time of the first Earth Day, he wrote a paper about unconscious processes that occur in relation to the environmental crisis. That paper marked the beginning of environmental psychology, but it’s only been in the last 15 years that psychologists have been looking deeply at the climate crisis.
Around 2010, psychologist Renée Lertzman started studying what she called “climate apathy.” She found, surprisingly, that a lot of the seemingly apathetic people she interviewed were actually quite concerned about climate change; they just didn’t know what to do about it. They were keeping quiet and looking away because feeling helpless was uncomfortable for them.
RH: What drew you to this area?
Allured: I grew up in Southern California in the ’60s, where thick smog pollution was a problem. We had ozone-alert days when kids weren’t allowed to go outside, and it was quite painful to breathe when I’d try to sneak out and play. That taught me how environmental pollution can have a big effect on your mood.
Later, as a psychology student, I was focused on the news as the environmental crisis got worse and worse. In 2007, I started writing papers on it and presenting them at conferences, but hardly anybody came. I was undeterred: what was important to me was the psychology behind how we as a people, including those in government, were trying not to deal with this crisis.
Over time, more mental health clinicians and academics became interested in what I was saying. And then some people in the UK started the Climate Psychology Alliance and contacted me to help start a chapter in the United States.
We’ve gained traction as environmental conditions have gotten worse. As you can imagine, more extreme weather events have more psychological consequences. People in California are dealing with wildfires. People out East have more hurricanes. People in the Midwest have worse droughts. Clinicians all over are beginning to reach out to us to learn how to help the people who are starting to talk about this, as well the people who aren’t talking about it but are still getting anxious.
RH: Many people on your steering committee are analytically oriented. Are there ties between psychoanalysis and your work?
Allured: I think psychoanalysis helps us look at some of the issues and reactions we’re having to the climate crisis, especially in terms of the defenses of dissociation. It’s commonplace now for people to be walking around fairly dissociated from this problem. We have a hard time staying with the reality because the problem is too big. And people get caught in what psychoanalysts call “splitting defenses,” which is where we get into tribalism and ideas of “good” and “bad” people. When we’re doing this, it’s hard to take responsibility and move into action.
Searles, a psychoanalyst, was concerned that climate concerns would be seen as some kind of “other” issue, like transference. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening. These concerns can trigger primitive fears—annihilation anxieties that some psychoanalysts talk about, which can be felt by very young children. We can feel shadows or memories of these fears when we think about the growing climate crisis we’re now facing.
But I was also trained in family systems theory, and I sometimes think of the climate crisis more in terms of a dysfunctional family model: you have parents who aren’t taking care of the home—in this case, the environment—so it’s falling into disrepair. The kids are looking at the situation but can’t hire contractors to fix it, and the parents are seemingly uncaring and neglectful. It can stir up a lot of anger and primitive defenses, like in families where there’s dysfunction.
RH: I’d imagine that the gradual nature of climate change feeds into our dissociative tendencies. If you look at it on a decade-by-decade level, it seems pretty clear what’s going on, but day by day, even month by month and year by year, it doesn’t seem quite as obvious.
Allured: That’s probably true for most people who live in a situation of white privilege or class privilege. But those from BIPOC communities, or who have less socioeconomic status and have been living in degraded environments, feel it on a daily basis.
RH: I grew up in Oregon, where I was out in the wilderness quite a bit. After living in the city for a few years, I started to feel a vague sense of restlessness and discomfort. I then discovered the hiking trails outside of town. It was like being around trees was what was missing. It did feel as if it had a transference: I’d been missing mother nature. Does that make sense?
Allured: Yes. I totally agree that we have an object relationship with what we call the more-than-human world, and that relationship can calm and steady us. Of course, extreme weather isn’t so calming, but throughout history, people have used that relationship as a way of seeking predictability, comfort, and quiet.
RH: In the past several years, many of my clients have mentioned rising anxiety resulting from climate reports and weather events. They report feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and impending doom. They’re fairly certain the world’s going to end soon. I’d imagine that’s a lot of what you’re addressing with your work.
Allured: It’s a common experience that once a client starts to trust their therapist, they’ll bring up these concerns. And I think a lot of people still don’t know that it’s an okay topic for therapy; they think we’re just supposed to be talking about relationships. But if we ask good questions when they bring it up, they’ll begin to realize that this is an appropriate topic if it’s making them anxious. That doesn’t mean the anxiety is a pathology: it’s appropriate. The question is, how do we help them?
The first thing is to just encourage your clients to talk about what’s been on their mind, and from there try to discern their biggest fears about it. For some people, it’s the fear of losing their family or dwelling. For other people, it’s fears of increasing social injustice for many, while other people have the means to escape the worst of it. I think younger people are especially concerned about this.
The next step is to go into details about people’s specific anxieties. If they’re worried about losing their home, how might it happen? Why do they think this might happen? They might have good answers, like the political situation isn’t allowing us to address it, or it’s a human failing to not think long-term. However they’re understanding it, just help them talk about it.
Then, people typically want to learn more. We can give them resources if they’re wanting to know about solutions in their particular locale, and we can point them toward who’s doing what to make a difference there.
Younger clients might also be concerned about whether it’s going to be safe to have kids. I’ve had people ask me that question. I wish I could say, yes, but I’m not sure how safe it’s going to be 40 or 30 or even 20 years from now. So I’m more interested in helping clients find a way to hold their feelings and their uncertainty.
Once a person can talk about their feelings around this and understand the larger systems at play, it often becomes important for them to find a way of having an impact on their part of their world. We can talk about what they can do to educate their parents if their parents are minimizing it. I’ve had clients pursue work in fields related to the climate crisis because they wake up to it in their science classes, for instance, and then come to me upset about it.
RH: We all want a feeling of control.
Allured: Sometimes it helps for them to have a climate buddy, a friend to talk about it with on a regular basis, in addition to me. I have a climate buddy who’s a colleague. We meet once a week and talk about climate news and our reactions to it. It helps to get it off my chest and feel validated that this is a real concern. It’s okay to feel discouraged on some days and hopeful on others.
RH: This is different from a lot of the issues that we face in therapy. It’s not going to resolve with a technique. We’re all facing an uncertain future. The question becomes, “How do I maintain a sense of efficacy or tolerate the threat and my anxiety about it?”
Allured: You’re exactly right. How do I maintain a sense of efficacy in my own life? And how can I hold on to knowing about this without backing away all the time? It’s okay to compartmentalize it sometimes: we all need to just have fun and enjoy our lives and our families. But how we reorient to living in this quickly changing world is the task as I see it.
The truth is we’re going to be in a different future from the one we expected. We’re going to need to tolerate more uncertainty and be ready to be flexible in the face of climate changes. We’re also going to need to hold onto a deeper relationship with the more-than-human world, so that we can steady ourselves and be reminded that we need to care for this environment.
RH: What’s next for the Climate Psychology Alliance?
Allured: We’re diversifying our organization because simply focusing on climate anxiety presumes you haven’t yet felt the brunt of things. That’s coming from a place of privilege. So we’re expanding to include more social and climate justice, and to have more trainings for mental health professionals who want to learn about this.
Last week, we gave a training to an institute in the Bay Area because its clinicians wanted to know what to do when people bring in issues related to the wildfires. We emphasized that therapists need to process their feelings about climate change first; otherwise, it’s going to be hard for them to listen to their client’s concerns.
I compare it to the situation of if my mother were terminally ill and I was trying not to think about it because I was totally dependent on her and overwhelmed. If someone walked into my therapy office and said, “I just learned that my mother might be terminally ill,” I don’t think I’d want to talk to that client about that topic.
If we can help clinicians understand their own reactions to climate change and come to terms with their place in this unfolding crisis, they can better tolerate hearing about this and be role models for their clients.