Simple and complex trauma

Trauma in the context of climate change may result from discrete events, which lead to the loss, for example, of homes through flooding or fire. Trauma in relation to environmental change may also appear as something less defined; a pervasive state similar to complex developmental trauma.

Trauma caused by particular events

Discrete traumatic events may destroy the ability to feel safe. This kind of trauma is likely to induce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as nightmares, flashbacks and hyper-arousal. For a full psychiatric review of studies of trauma related to climate change go to:

Complex trauma

States of mind and bodily feelings potentially evoked by climate anxiety and systematic oppressions have much in common with complex or developmental trauma, where no direct experience of a traumatic event has been involved. In relation to climate change, these may be linked to and interact with a range of traumas, such as anticipated trauma (pre-traumatic stress disorder), the experience of loss of continuity in the environment (see Solastalgia), and what Menakem (2017) terms historical, intergenerational and institutionalised trauma. This adversely affects the development of an internalised ‘holding environment’ or sense of containment; and may create a traumatised state of mind which becomes a subtly pervasive feature of collective experience manifest, for example, in constant vigilance.

Alienation from the natural world

The alienation created in our modern lives from the more-than-human world also affects psychological resilience and the capacity to recover from any kind of traumatic experience. Harold Searles writes: “An ecologically healthy relatedness to our non-human environment is essential to the development and maintenance of our sense of being human.” And the capacity to deal with the ordinary losses of life is “undermined, disrupted and distorted, concomitant with the ecological deterioration” (Searles, 1975).

Trauma and learned helplessness

Van Der Kolk (2015, p203) found that patients acquired a kind of learned helplessness from repeated and/or continuous trauma:

“Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself, of… self-leadership.”

If disconnection from the natural world creates something similar to complex or developmental trauma then perhaps as a culture we are affected by learned helplessness. This may explain, in part at least, our apparent apathy in relation to climate change.

The effect on the nervous system

Prolonged and continuous climate-related anxiety affects the nervous system so that it may no longer easily regulate stress and rest responses, and it becomes unable to switch appropriately between the two. It may also disrupt normal patterns of sleep and rest, leading to a continuous state of hyper-arousal.

Van Der Kolk proposes that the way to heal complex trauma is through awareness of how the body’s natural alarm systems have been affected by trauma and a re-training of neurological responses.

Managing climate-change-related trauma

A widely applied therapeutic response to psychological trauma (Herman, 2015) involves a three-stage recovery process:

  • safety and stabilisation
  • remembrance and mourning, and
  • recognition and integration.

While effective in the healing of simple trauma, this formulation may not work so well for complex trauma in relation to climate change. The deep and pervasive effects of this require healing and change at not only the individual level but also that of community and culture.

Healing complex trauma

There is evidence that unless we can create a coherent narrative about traumatic events, we have difficulty recovering from them (Bednarek, 2020; Herman, 2015).  Building the capacity to manage overwhelming feelings, and finding the courage and support to face these feelings, are essential parts of the healing process for all kinds of trauma. Joining with others to create resilient communities, regenerative cultures and more sustainable lifestyles may in the end be the only truly effective means of managing climate-related complex trauma.


Bednarek, S. (2021). Climate change, fragmentation and the effects of collective trauma. Bridging the divided stories we live by. Journal of Social Work Practice, 35: 5-17.

Herman, J. (2015). Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.

Menakem, R. (2017). My grandmother’s hand: racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press.

Searle, H. (1975). Unconscious processes in relation to the environmental crisis. Psychoanalytic Review, 59 (3): 361-374.

Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. New York and London: Penguin.

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