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Want to talk to a therapist about climate change? Here are four things to ask.  » Yale Climate Connections


We live in a world in which extreme weather is getting more extreme — heat waves are hotter, hurricanes are more severe, and wildfires are larger. This reality can affect our feelings of safety in the present and hope for the future, leading to anxiety, grief, dread, hopelessness, and anger. 

Wendy Greenspun is a climate psychologist and educator based in New York City. She said that not everyone who is experiencing climate distress needs to see a therapist, but it can be helpful if you feel like your usual channels of managing your emotions aren’t working well enough.

“If there’s impacts on functioning, like disrupted sleep and appetite, or pervasive levels of anxiety, despair, depression, those can be things that a professional could really help with,” Greenspun said.

Widespread worry

In a 2021 survey of 10,000 young people (aged 16-25), more than 45% of respondents said that worrying about climate change negatively affected their eating, working, sleeping, or other aspects of their daily lives. 

In some ways, traditional models of therapy are not a perfect fit for addressing feelings around climate change. That’s why a field of climate-aware therapy has emerged. 

“The reality out there is incredibly stressful, and so the feelings of anxiety, and dread, or all the other feelings that we have, are based in real things,” said Rebecca Weston, a therapist and co-president of the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America. “Unfortunately, the field of mental health tends to be so individualist and so focused on internal experience to the exclusion of and not in a relationship to the external world.”

Through a climate-aware therapy framework, clinicians learn how to validate the existential dread that comes with climate change while also helping people better manage that distress. 

If you’re looking for a therapist to talk about climate change with, your first stop could be the Climate Psychology of North America’s directory of climate-aware therapists. If there are no climate-aware therapists in your area or none who take insurance, or new patients, you can still find a clinician who can be helpful. In interviewing therapists, here are some tips to figure out if a candidate is a good fit:

1. What do they know about climate change?

Weston said it can be useful to ask your therapist candidates what they know about climate change to establish a baseline. “You can even ask, ‘Have you experienced climate anxiety?’” she said. “There’s no reason to think that clinicians are occupying a different world than the rest of us.”

Greenspun said she got into climate-aware therapy because of her own feelings of distress about the issue. When you talk to potential therapists about your climate worries, you want them to respond with understanding and validation, she said. If a therapist changes the subject or insinuates that your climate distress may really be about something else, they’re likely not a good fit.

2. How do they talk about other existential and society-level problems?

Weston suggested talking to clinicians about how they help clients through systemic issues like inequity and racism to find out how they bring the external world into the therapy room. 

“I don’t actually happen to think that this is the first time clinicians have had the opportunity to think about dystopian futures,” Weston said. 

For example, experiences like chronic policing in communities of color, she said, can give people a shortened sense of how long they can live and can make it hard to consider positive futures. 

“For clinicians who are comfortable working in the space of that, I’m not so sure that climate is entirely different,” she said. “This is not the first existential threat. So it is borrowing from liberation psychology, it’s borrowing from psychologies that allow, again, the social and cultural and political world to be realistically part of our psychological experience.”

Additionally, Greenspun said that if you’ve experienced direct trauma from an extreme weather event, feel “pre-traumatic” stress, or face ongoing climate injustice or environmental racism, it would be good to ask if the clinicians you’re considering use trauma-informed approaches. According to the Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center, trauma-informed therapy approaches:  

  • Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand paths to recovery
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma
  • Integrate knowledge about trauma into all aspects of therapy
  • Actively resist re-traumatizing the patient.

3. Do you feel comfortable being vulnerable with them?

The most important factor in effective therapy is a good relationship between you and your therapist.

“At the heart of it all is the therapeutic alliance,” Greenspun said. “It’s really the relationship that is the most beneficial part of therapy, regardless of what technique or theoretical orientation somebody has.”

Pay attention to how you feel in the session, she said. Note how your body is reacting and whether you feel calm or not. Trust your gut. If someone doesn’t feel like a good fit, they’re not. 

4. Would they be open to learning more about climate change?

Weston said that it’s important to find a therapist who is willing to learn from you. “In some ways, this does challenge a little bit the hierarchy of therapy,” she said. Weston said that if she had a client who wanted her to read something to help her understand their experience, she would want to read it. 

“And I’m not going to present myself as somebody who has it all figured out,” she said.

Greenspun agrees. “A good therapist is open to feedback from a client,” she said.

The Climate Psychology Alliance of North America has many resources — from reading lists to webinars — for therapists on their website.

Good therapy can be transformative

As you go on the journey of finding someone to talk to about climate distress, know that more and more clinicians are gaining the tools to help you. Group therapy and support groups focused on climate change are also growing more widely available. 

“I do think, in general, so many clinicians are learning more and more to move outside of just the individual and their issues to looking at the larger sociopolitical world, the environmental, ecosystemic world,” Greenspun said.

Good therapy can become transformative, she said. Therapists can help you ask the question, “Who do I want to be in this unfolding crisis?” They can help you connect with community, take actions that feel meaningful, and align your values with your response to the climate crisis, she added. 

“Within really painful feelings can emerge some really useful, positive feelings,” Greenspun said. “Within grief, there’s gratitude, there’s love, there’s care. Inside of anger is often the fuel for action. Guilt helps us want to repair and do something to help. So that’s part of the work, too.”

Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.


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