Three months after Gretchen bought a house in Grass Valley, California, the most destructive and fatal wildfire in the state’s history ravaged the towns about 40 miles northwest of her.
The Camp Fire of November 2018 was noteworthy not just because of its damaging scale but because of what started it all: a spark from a faulty transmission line owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which services nearly two-thirds of California.
PG&E reacted by announcing almost a year later that in advance of days with a high fire risk, it would proactively institute power outages in 17 counties throughout the northern part of the state, including the one where Gretchen lives. The binary options seemed to be: cause another fire or intermittently plunge tens of thousands of people into literal and figurative darkness, impacting emergency services, health, food, internet, gas, and any other electrified necessity or convenience of modern life.
This summer, in between the end of the Camp Fire and the beginning of the blackouts, Gretchen, who asked to keep her last name private, decided it was time to seek counseling for climate-related anxiety.
“That was a very traumatic experience to go through,” Gretchen, 39, says, describing what it was like to have recently settled in this increasingly fire-prone part of her home state, and later witnessing a colleague flee California altogether after his own home burned down and he couldn’t afford to stay. “For a long time, I kept on having this vision of what my town will look like if one of those firestorms happens, and I felt like I needed to work on that.”
While research on climate anxiety—or, more broadly, the effects of climate change on mental health—has been slowly but surely piling up, the actual experience of diagnosing and treating it is less well-documented in both media and academia. An ongoing Yale University study of American perceptions of climate change shows an increasing proportion of concern: In 2018, 29 percent of 1,114 survey respondents said they were “very worried” about climate change, up from 16 percent in 2008. But there are no parallel large-scale studies of whether a similar proportion of people are in therapy for climate change-related mental health issues.
That might be because many would-be clients don’t yet realize that this is a valid concern for which to seek out professional support. It could also be because there are no definitive or unifying resources for therapists who are counseling people on the topic. Climate anxiety is notably absent by name from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the psychological gospel for everyone from clinicians to lawmakers. The manual was last updated in 2012 (and published in 2013), just when the first documents of climate anxiety were beginning to crop up.
A small 2013 study surveyed college students in the U.S. and Europe to try and answer the question: Is habitually worrying about the environment a mental health concern if it’s a response to a real threat? The study concluded: “…those who habitually worry about the ecology are not only lacking in any psychopathology, but demonstrate a constructive and adaptive response to a serious problem.” In other words, worrying about a concrete external concern like the state of the environment is on a different plane than habitually worrying about an internal concern, like feelings of inadequacy. Therapy may still help with the former, but the diagnostic framework could ultimately look different than what is typically used in generalized anxiety.
For now, the best resource for therapists counseling patients battling what is sometimes dubbed “ecoanxiety” is a 70-page booklet called “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance,” whose publication was co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, which publishes the DSM. It’s been through two editions already, the first in 2014 and the second in 2017.
“It’s not clear to me that [climate anxiety] would merit its own diagnosis, at least at this point,” says Susan Clayton, who was the lead author on the 2017 edition and who studies this area at The College of Wooster, but doesn’t counsel people directly. However, she says, “I do think that there are some differences [from generalized anxiety], and one of the important differences is, of course, that there’s some realism here.”
Clayton says that group therapy may be a particularly useful way to affirm for people that they’re not the only one experiencing climate anxiety, especially in communities where it might be taboo to not only affirm the existence of climate change but to be openly affected by it.
On drawing therapeutic inspiration from historical examples of other global dangers—such as the widespread fear of nuclear threat during the Cold War—Clayton says: “That was such a different time and they were thinking differently about mental health, but I think in many ways the fear is very similar. It’s not like worrying about your finances, it’s worrying about the end of the world. So that sort of existential component, and the fact that it’s shared, both are very similar here.”
There are precedents that therapists can refer to for guidance on helping clients managing climate anxiety, like the approaches used to support people dealing with a terminal illness or battling systemic racism. Such treatments need to stay rooted in the reality of the trigger.
“You don’t want to say to them, ‘That’s not a real thing,’” Clayton explains. “So I think of [climate anxiety] like that. It does mean that the therapeutic focus is not going to be on trying to get people to be reasonable,” which is to say that their anxiety is not inherently unreasonable.
“I think it is important to recognize that the anxieties have a legitimate basis,” she adds.
Gretchen’s reality is now one of adapting to living an off-the-grid lifestyle that she didn’t intentionally sign up for. She puts gas in her car in advance of blackouts, and waits to see week-by-week if the school where she teaches second and third grade, in the foothills of Tahoe National Park, will be closed. Her union has yet to figure out how this stop-and-go schedule will affect her salary; she has to keep rescheduling parent-teacher conferences; and she no longer knows when the last day of school will be—existing summer plans for her personal life be damned. Even her interview for this story was affected by this instability.
While trying to schedule a time to talk, she wrote, “Speaking of climate change, I may not have work the rest of the week due to PG&E power outages. If so I will have a very flexible schedule.” Later, she suddenly had to decline. “As it turns out, the power’s not going out. I will be at work.”
In therapy sessions, she works with her counselor to focus on preparedness, where possible, and to specifically frame that preparedness as a source of regaining some of the stability she’s lost rather than a sign of imminent trouble. That nuance became necessary after a training at work had the opposite effect.
“We’ve gone through scenarios [where] if a firestorm happens and we don’t have time to evacuate, we have to gather all the children into the cafeteria and fend off the flames ourselves with help from the fire department, and keep them alive if we can’t get out in time,” she says. “After that day, or that training, that really scared me.”
Her therapist uses a type of psychotherapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to help Gretchen move away from traumatizing images, such as picturing her town on fire, while emphasizing what it is that she can control, such as making sure her car has a full tank, in case she needs to evacuate. EMDR has been shown to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the World Health Organization offers practice guidelines around it.
“I feel more comfortable now being prepared, being prudent, but not dwelling on it all the time,” she says. “I feel a little less heightened anxiety and have stopped replaying [those images] in my mind.”
Overall, the type of support Gretchen receives is based on pre-existing tools for managing other well-established mental health burdens like PTSD and generalized anxiety. Although no definitive, new practices have specifically emerged around climate anxiety on a comprehensive scale yet, Gretchen says she was nonetheless met with compassion when she first approached a therapist about the topical source of her anxiety, and doesn’t feel that her care is lacking in any way.
“I don’t know enough to know whether or how it should become its own diagnosis, but I feel like it’s something that is still evolving. Down the road, as we see more populations having to move, more refugees, more real effects, that might change,” she says. “For me, using the old tools in a new way has been effective at this point.”
Gretchen hasn’t yet explored with her therapist the more existential worries that climate change dredges up for her—worries about whether or not to have children, and if it was a mistake to settle down in Grass Valley. She’s only been in therapy for her climate anxiety since the summer (although she has intermittently sought out professional mental health support for other reasons over the last eight years), and it will take time to get to these bigger issues, she says. She’s not sure yet whether that part of her counseling will look different than what’s she’s done so far.
But she does wonder about the overall usefulness of pathologizing what, as Clayton said, are legitimate anxieties. She has the same question when it comes to providing mental health support for her students, many of whom live in poverty.
“Is it just putting a bandaid on something that is unfixable, or is unfair?” she ponders. But de-escalating the psychological toll that climate change can have on people is crucial to giving them back the energy to deal with the problem itself, not just their reaction to the problem. Clayton believes that engaging in climate activism can provide solace for the people who do have that energy.
“This is a social issue, and there’s obviously lots and lots of climate activism,” she says. “You might not be comfortable being politically active, but I think getting involved in some way, and addressing the issue, would help people feel much more empowered, and would help with the experience of climate anxiety.”
As far as what shape this personal involvement takes, an increasingly vocal movement of people is calling for a refocus. They say the onus of reversing, or at least stymying, the situation should fall on the big businesses and governments that have been too slow to act, not on individual consumer actions, like buying sustainably made clothes, divesting from the meat and dairy industry, or driving an electric car.
But outside of formal therapy and even activism, however that looks, Clayton has another suggestion for combating climate anxiety, and it’s one that is surprising in its simplicity: Go outside, and take stock of that which boldly continues to exist.
“People who are anxious about climate change, it’s partly about the survival of the species, but it’s partly about the sense that, ‘Something I care about is being destroyed,’” she says. “Remember that nature is not just a source of anxiety, it’s also a source of replenishment and restoration.”