Climate change and ecological crisis pose profound psychological threat: existential threat; threat to the integrity and stability of self-identity; and threat to self-esteem, life plans and internalised expectations of the future. We are reminded of the fact of our eventual death, and the morality of our behaviour is challenged (Crompton and Kasser, 2009).
When encountering a perceived threat, the disequilibrium creates stress, which is both physiological and psychological. The human tendency is to attempt to alleviate stress and decrease negative emotions through defence mechanisms and coping strategies, in order to return to baseline functioning as soon as possible. These responses are part of normal human functioning, but can come to serve pathological ends if overused or situationally inappropriate (Cramer, 1998).
Defences and coping
Cramer (1998) makes the case for a clear distinction between defences and coping; namely that defence mechanisms are unconscious and unintentional, and coping strategies are conscious and intentional. However, in psychology literature the terms ‘defence’ and ‘coping’ are often used interchangeably. Threat responses may in fact involve both conscious and unconscious dimensions, and the processes involved are dynamic: there is possibility for movement of thoughts between conscious and unconscious parts of the mind through processes of suppression and awareness. Threat responses interact with other psycho-social factors in complex ways to influence cognition and behaviour (Andrews, 2017).
Types of responses
There are different ways of categorising defence and coping responses. For example, to classify into avoidant and approach types. Avoidant coping is a defensive form of regulation, involving denial, distortion or disengagement. Approach coping has three predominant forms: active coping, which is direct action to deal with stressful situation; acceptance, which is cognitive and emotional acknowledgement of stressful realities; and cognitive reinterpretation, which involves learning or positive reframing. We can also make a distinction between proactive and reactive coping. Proactive coping, also known as anticipatory adaptation or psychological preparedness, is made in anticipation of an event, whereas reactive coping is made after. The two types merge when responses are made to an event in order to both diminish its impact and prevent its re-occurrence. Coping responses can be cognitive, affective or behavioural – or a mix of these.
Adaptive or maladaptive outcomes
Coping responses have adaptive or maladaptive outcomes. Approach coping is generally considered adaptive because effort is directed towards resolving the stressful situation or overcoming the stress associated it, whereas avoidant coping, whilst it may relieve stress in the short term, if prolonged is likely to become maladaptive. Avoidant coping is associated with poorer health (Weinstein and Ryan, 2011).
With regards to climate change and ecological crisis, we can consider whether coping responses are adaptive or maladaptive, not just personally but also ecologically – in other words, do the responses promote psychological adjustment and stimulate appropriate and proportional pro-environmental action, or do they serve to protect the person from having to make radical changes or take significant action? As Rust (2008, p.160) says: “when we block out our feelings we lose touch with the urgency of the crisis”. Adaptive coping is the basis for transformational resilience.
Ecologically maladaptive coping responses could include:
- denial or disavowal of ecological crisis (e.g. rejecting, deflecting, ignoring)
- distortion of facts (e.g. reducing size of threat, putting threat into the future)
- shifting responsibility (e.g. blame-shifting, denial of guilt, splitting, projection)
- avoidance of difficult emotions (e.g. suppression, escapism, numbing, pleasure-seeking
- diversionary activity (e.g. minor behaviour change or displaced commitment)
- non-action (e.g. resignation, passivity, lazy catastrophism)
- self-deception (e.g. wishful/magical thinking, unrealistic optimism)
- active catastrophism and self-destructive acts, and
- self-enhancement values orientation (e.g. materialistic behaviour to enhance self-esteem, or self-protection to enhance sense of security and being in control)
Ecologically adaptive coping responses could include:
- seeking information, engagement with facts about ecological crisis
- engaging with and regulating associated emotions (e.g. through mindfulness)
- compassion, self-transcendence, values orientation (care for human and non-human others)
- connecting with nature
- considered reflection on death and impermanence, and
- collaborative problem-solving
Coping is psycho-social
Coping responses are not isolated psychological processes, they are psycho-social phenomenon, culturally sanctioned and maintained by social norms and structures. Understanding the processes involved in coping with psychological threat, and how they influence cognition and behaviour, is critical for designing interventions to subvert maladaptive responses to ecological crisis, at both individual and societal levels. Becoming aware of maladaptive responses as they arise offers the possibility for choosing a different response.
Andrews, N. (2017). Psychosocial factors influencing the experience of sustainability professionals. Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy, 8(4), 445-469.
Cramer, P. (1998). Coping and defense mechanisms: what’s the difference? Journal of Personality, 66(6), 919-946.
Crompton, T. and Kasser, T. (2009). Meeting environmental challenges: the role of human identity. Godalming, UK: WWF-UK.
Rust, M. (2008). Climate on the couch. Psychotherapy and Politics International, 6(3), 157-170.
Weinstein, N. and Ryan, R.M. (2011). A self-determination theory approach to understanding stress incursion and responses. Stress and Health, 27(1), 4-17.
Image is of a Shield Bug