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  • Writer's pictureKristy Johnsson

Using the trauma model to work with climate anxiety and despair

Working safely with these emotions gives us the clarity and connection we need

Image from Unsplash

Every few months a new article comes out talking about the rising rates of climate anxiety and despair. Some articles, like this one, are transparent about how it often leaves the profession baffled, acknowledging, "psychologists weren’t exactly trained to counsel clients through the destruction of the planet." Articles like this betray our culture's true relationship to uncomfortable ("negative") emotions and emotional pain: we try to get rid of them. An issue like the climate crisis stumps mental health professionals when it seems all the facts validate every ounce of worry and despair in our clients and patients.

I've seen this same professional flailing in facebook groups filled with thousands of therapists. We're at an utter loss most of the time, often only providing cliche responses about living in the moment, or recommending individuals take action to cope. At worst, we gaslight our clients' fears for the sake of our own emotional regulation. We're hardly better off than they are under this old paradigm of pain-as-enemy.

But the world of trauma and somatic work has shown us a new paradigm that has powerful implications beyond individual and even collective healing. In this new paradigm, these emotions are no longer tireless foes, but transformative doorways into a new way of being in the world. And as we face the unraveling and failure of all our systems, we need a new paradigm now more than ever.

Trauma work shows us the body and its pain are the gateway to sanity

When we heal trauma, we don't have to force a sense of grounding, safety, or connection. It's just what happens when the trauma has been resolved, when we safely feel the emotions that couldn't be felt when the traumatic event happened. We naturally feel calmer, quieter, more embodied and connected, and not because we positively thought ourselves there, or because someone with an authoritative voice told us to. Our nervous systems effortlessly embody the health and connection that are innate to us.

In this process, we often experience profound insights into the nature of the original situation, or the more recent situation that re-activated the trauma. We might even experience deep insights into the nature of who we truly are, both through the lens of our unique human experience, and in a transpersonal sense. These insights are not conjured up, but simply come to us on their own.

I never get tired of how people respond to this when they experience it for the first time. It blows everything we thought we knew about emotions and how we achieve inner change out of the water.

It's interesting, then, to consider our intense feelings and perceptions about climate change and the collective future of humanity through this lens. When we're consumed by these feelings, we assume that our sense of doom, chronic state of anxiety or hopelessness, or our beliefs that we're the bastard child of this biosphere are all accurate feelings and articulations of reality. We simply fight or try to overcome the feelings the way we've been trained to with any painful thoughts and feelings. We don't realize that maybe these emotions and beliefs might also be a sign of trauma, like smudges on a window that distort our perception, perhaps as a result of our childhood, but also intergenerational trauma that has propped up the very systems that harm Black, Indigenous, People of Color, ecosystems, and our own bodies.

This doesn't imply that our responses to the climate crisis are entirely a result of trauma: it can be true that we are both in a dire predicament while also having our perception of that predicament be thoroughly clouded by our unresolved trauma. But what it does mean is that we're unable to respond from a state of connection necessary for the transformative action a crisis like this calls for. Our perception and responses are then a result of not just the current situation, but also the many situations we were unable to handle over a lifetime, or hundreds of years. We can use the same model of working with trauma to meet these emotions and achieve clarity, evolving of a new way of being with ourselves, and thus, our world.

Things are looking bad. But being in a permanent state of depression and experiencing chronic anxiety about it is not a given. It's entirely possible to honestly take in the reality of this predicament while also feeling connected, empowered, grateful, and supported by a greater process. It doesn't mean we never have uncomfortable feelings about it, or have times when we experience immense doubt, but those feelings and beliefs don't need to fully dominate our inner landscape.

Instead, each time we meet these responses we can get clearer about what's happening and our role in it.

When we meet our feelings about the climate crisis in the same way we work with trauma, we start to see that much of our perceptions of this situation are clouded by early childhood, ancestral, and collective trauma. We are not actually seeing this situation as it is.

In working with individual trauma, we feel our unfelt emotions in a safe way and release beliefs that are a consequence of that trauma. We're then able to naturally return to a state of connection, ease, and clarity, and then act from that place rather than the traumatized state. Following the same principles, using the emotions that the climate crisis elicits as the entry point, not only do we emerge more embodied and connected, we also become more empowered, able to act from a new way of thinking and being in the world. We no longer take action from a place of disconnection, with all the faulty thinking that accompanies it, and which got us into this mess in the first place.

Using the trauma model to work with climate anxiety, despair, and grief is an evolutionary force

Here's what I think is especially cool about this: it's very clear that our old way of being - the way of being that's born of white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative western systems - is not conducive to a healthy, sustainable relationship with ecosystems, people of color, and our own bodies. But we can't return to any untainted state of innocence. That means we're not going back to anything; we're evolving into something new.

In the healing of our traumas, that process gives rise to something entirely different. We evolve, both as individuals and as a species. By building a conscious relationship between our frontal lobe - that part of our brain responsible for rationality, curiosity, communication, and feeling connected - and our reptilian brain and limbic system, we create a more integrated brain and an aware, conscious nervous system. We are no longer unconsciously governed by our survival responses, our unfelt emotions, and the past events that overwhelmed us. We are aware of our own inner processes, engaging with compassion and curiosity. We know ourselves in a new way, and our relationship with everyone and everything outside the boundaries of our skin radically changes.

It's clear at this point that we can't settle for anything less. We have too much at stake, and there is much for which we need to be accountable. Climate change can be seen as the end, or it can be seen as a doorway: one of accountability into a life-affirming way of being.

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