grief

Grief is the name we give to the complex emotions people experience following a loss – the shock, disbelief and incomprehension; the anger, rage and blame; the dull, monotonous ache of hopelessness and the endless grey days that deliver no meaning. Eventually, out of the sadness, out of the fury, out of the melancholy and despair, drops of hopefulness may begin to coalesce and we may watch ourselves begin the slow climb back to a changed but possibly liveable life. 

Whose grief matters?

The idea that climate change brings loss is now commonplace. But many of the losses take place far from the prosperous centres of civilisation. It is easy for the more fortunate to close their eyes to the experiences of those who suffer extreme weather events, lose their home, community or livelihood, or witness the disappearance of familiar habitats and species. 

Those who ignore the traumas of displacement and the severing of human bonds which climate change brings, render these losses invisible and invalidate the sufferers’ grief. If loss and grief are not discussed, not only is violence done to the experiences of those who suffer, but the policies proposed to deal with climate change are likely to be inadequate (Randall, 2009).

Anticipatory grief

Those who do notice may find themselves little more than helpless witnesses to the suffering of others, or fearful anticipators of the losses which they know their children and their children’s children will suffer. 

Anticipatory grief may not match the distress of an actual bereavement, but it is still hard to deal with, as anyone who has watched and waited through the terminal illness of a loved one will testify. Are you realistically accepting the inevitability of death, or giving way to despair? Are you realistically accepting the inevitability of a 4°C temperature rise, or fatefully abandoning the struggle for 2°C? 

Experiences of loss and grief are likely to become more common as the effects of climate change are felt more widely and its inevitability is more widely accepted. The primary psychological need of those affected is for a safe context in which to process the trauma and grieve for what is lost or will be lost, to talk, to be listened to and supported. 

Models of grief

If we are trying to help each other through the distress of grief about climate change, it can also help to have a model for these experiences. The ground-breaking work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (Kübler-Ross, 1969) is often cited, but her model focuses on the experiences of the dying and not on the experiences of those who must somehow survive the death and continue to live.

William Worden (Worden, 1983) is more helpful. He conceives of grief as a series of tasks that can either be embraced or rejected. Although he lists them in a particular order, he emphasises that they are unlikely to follow a smooth or even flow, as the grieving person loops forwards and back, sometimes embracing the tasks, sometimes rejecting them, failing, trying again, revisiting, reprising and reworking until somehow, meaning, purpose and creativity are restored. The table summarises Worden’s model.

 

Embracing the tasks of grief

Rejecting the tasks of grief

1

Accepting the reality of the loss, first intellectually and then emotionally.

Denial of:
   the facts of the loss;
   the meaning of the loss;
   the irreversibility of the loss.

2

Working through the painful emotions of grief (despair, fear, guilt, anger, shame, sadness, yearning, disorganisation).

Shutting off all emotion, idealising what is lost, bargaining, numbing the pain through alcohol, drugs or manic activity.

3

Adjusting to the new environment, acquiring new skills, developing a new sense of self.

Not adapting, becoming helpless, bitter, angry, depressed, withdrawing.

4

Finding a place for what has been lost, reinvesting emotional energy.

Refusing to love, turning away from life.

(Adapted from Worden, 1983)

Embracing these tasks of grief – about what we anticipate, about what has happened to us and about what has happened to others including the non-human with which we are connected – is an essential part of becoming fruitfully active about climate change. It is a key component in Joanna Macey's work (see later post).

Solostagia is a specific form of grief (see later post)

References

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.

Randall, R. (2009). Loss and climate change: the cost of parallel narratives. Ecopsychology, 1(3): 118-129.

Worden, J. W (1983). Grief counselling and grief therapy. London: Tavistock.

Image: Manila Bay Clean Up – Philippines 2006 – Gavin Newman, Greenpeace.

seedball

Psychology research finds that one of the factors influencing environmental behaviour is identity. Some identities are more likely to motivate pro-environmental behaviours than others. An identity that is positively associated with pro-environmental behaviour is a sense of self as part of and connected with nature, a so-called ‘environmental identity’ (Clayton, 2003). Other terms used to refer to similar constructs include ecological identity, ecological Self, nature connectedness, nature relatedness and inclusion of self with nature.

Multiple identities

Identity is a complex and contested construct, and to discuss it further we first need to establish some clarity, for there are various different ways of defining and understanding identity. In psychology and sociology literature, the terms ‘self’ and ‘identity’ are often used interchangeably. In this entry, identity means self-identity and refers to how a person sees themself. Each individual has multiple identities that are hierarchically arranged in the mind in a dynamic manner. The strength and salience of a particular identity at any particular moment is influenced by contextual factors (such as whether social interactions affirm that identity), as well as by the commitment the individual has to that identity. Identities are not fixed or static, but rather are in a continuous process of formation, emerging and changing through our ongoing embodied interactions with the world. Identities may be integrated and unified to varying extents, with consequences for a sense of inner coherence and psychological wellbeing (Deci and Ryan, 2000).

Some identities, if salient in the mind, can form a barrier to pro-environmental behaviour, even if the person also holds pro-environmental values. An example is self-identity as a car driver, which is reinforced by cultural messages, structural supports and the experience of convenience.

A sense of self as part of nature recognises other living beings as part of one’s in-group

Nature as in-group

A sense of self as part of nature recognises other living beings as part of one’s in-group; as kin. This identity can be strengthened through repeated immersive and embodied encounters with the natural world – interactions that are rooted in the specificity of a particular place and a relationship of care with the community of beings that live there (Andrews, 2018; WWF, 2011). These practices help to counter powerful social forces that undermine environmental identity by promoting the idea that humans are separate from the natural world and that non-human beings are part of one’s out-group.

Separate, superior and entitled

As people tend to show bias towards those they see as being part of their in-group and show prejudice and discrimination to those they see as part of their out-group, identifying nature as out-group may exacerbate human-wildlife conflicts and incline people towards environmentally harmful behaviour. The notion that humans are separate from nature is closely bound to beliefs that humans are superior to nature and, therefore, can achieve mastery over nature and transcend its limits. It is also accompanied by a sense of moral entitlement: the natural world exists for humans to exploit for our own ends. This set of beliefs is the story upon which the project of modernity is founded: it pervades our political and economic systems and underpins global responses to climate change. It is a root cause of ecological crisis, for it has led us to put human interests first and live as if there are no limits, over-exploiting nature’s resources and overwhelming biospheric cycles and processes.

Rewilding the psyche

Being part of nature means that connecting with nature is also connecting with ourselves: it is a ‘rewilding’ of the psyche. This involves accepting and integrating parts that have become devalued and derogated through their perceived association with nature: emotion, the physical body, intuition, the unconscious mind (Hasbach, 2012; Totton, 2011). Nature connection is then a journey towards inner-outer wholeness and, for this reason, for many people, it has a strongly spiritual dimension.

References

Andrews, N. (2018). How cognitive frames about nature may affect felt sense of nature connectedness. Ecopsychology Journal, 10(1).

Clayton, S. (2003). Environmental identity. In Clayton, S. and Opotow, S. (Eds.). Identity and the natural environment: the psychological significance of nature, (pp.60-86). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Deci, E.L. and Ryan R.M. (2000). The ‘‘what’’ and ‘‘why’’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behaviour. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.

Hasbach, P.H. (2012). Ecotherapy. In Kahn, P.H. and Hasbach, P.H. Hasbach, (Eds.). Ecopsychology: science, totems, and the technological species, (pp.115-140). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Totton, N. (2011). Wild therapy: undomesticating inner and outer worlds. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

WWF (2011). Natural change: catalysing leadership for sustainability. WWF Scotland.

earth

Eco-anxiety is the most frequently used term in literature and research to describe heightened emotional, mental or somatic distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system. The term climate change anxiety is often used synonymously. A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association links the impact of climate change to mental health and references ‘eco-anxiety’ as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

The concept has recently become a focus for attention for journalists and the media and there is a danger that it becomes material for a ‘moral panic’ which is then subject to derision by the online alt-right.

Ecological threat response

It is important to stress that CPA does not view eco-anxiety as a clinical condition, but an inevitable and even healthy response to the ecological threats we are facing, such as food/water shortages, extreme weather events, species extinction, increased health issues, social unrest and potentially the demise of human life on Earth. Paying heed to what is happening in our communities and across the globe is a healthier response than turning away in denial or disavowal.

The notion of solastalgia is closely related to eco-anxiety. Coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht (2005), it refers to the existential pain experienced when the place where one resides is subject to environmental degradation.

A range of emotions

Whatever words we use to illustrate the psychological effects of climate change, fear and anxiety are certainly not the only emotions people experience in relation to the climate emergency. Anger, helplessness, sadness, grief, depression, numbness, restlessness, sleeplessness and other symptoms can befall those who are able to face the facts. Fear and anxiety are feelings that alert us to danger and can mobilise us into action. Without enough support, anxiety can escalate into panic on one end of the spectrum or evoke a freeze response and paralyse on the other end of the spectrum.

Rather than attempting to rid people of anxiety, therapists can support individuals and communities to build strong containers that allow the expression and exploration of their emotions without collapsing under it or turning away. With strong enough support structures in place, most people can sustain strong feelings without either dissociating and numbing or going into blind panic. They can engage with difficult truths whilst staying connected and grounded. Community groups, climate cafes, supervision groups, are just a few examples of initiatives that can offer containment, sharing, witnessing, and empowerment.

Treatment

Whilst individuals may need support to increase their resilience to bear the unbearable, interventions to reduce suffering need to be on a systemic level rather than an individual one. Decisive global action to reduce CO2 emissions is therefore the appropriate ‘treatment’ for eco-anxiety, not medication or interventions to eradicate the discomfort.

If eco-anxiety is treated as a pathology, ‘then the forces of denial will have won’ says Graham Lawton (2019) from the New Scientist. He goes on to say that ‘what we are witnessing isn’t a tsunami of mental illness, but a long-overdue outbreak of sanity’.

Support needs to come in ways that enables people to experience the extent of their distress. We all need to expand our capacity to bear witness to suffering. With empathy, compassion and kindness, people can offer mutual support to each other, so that the contraction of fear does not cloud one’s heart or dominate one’s actions.

Grief is a normal human reaction to any kind of loss and loss is certainly a core characteristic of this time. It may include loss of a sense of home, loss of a sense of future, loss of trust in humanity, anticipatory loss for oneself or loved ones, loss of biodiversity etc. By processing these thoughts and feelings and bringing them into awareness, we prevent them from operating at an unconscious level. This is an important step in freeing us up to move forward in an empowered way.

References

Albrecht, G., Sartore, G.M., Connor, L., et al. (2007). Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change. Australasian Psychiatry, 15(s1): p95–98.

American Psychological Association/eco-America (2017). Mental health and our changing climate: impacts, implications, and guidance. Washington, DC: APA.

shield bug

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).

Stress

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.

References

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

trees

Beyond denial

When we really come out of a state of denial about climate change, the reality of the disaster that we are now facing may feel overwhelming and we slip straight from denial to despair. To avoid this, we need to find ways of processing this experience, of working it through, so that the difficult truth can be faced and engagement with the issue sustained. Then we can stay with the trouble, finding commitment and agency to combat apathy and withdrawal. This capacity to stay with and work through potentially overwhelming experience is called ‘containment’.

The non-human foundation

Our very first containing environment is a non-human environment extending to the biosphere – the world of our immediate lived experience; one we absorb via the realm of the senses – the smell or touch of a body, the light of a room, the pulsing of the foetal environment, the air passing by us and through us, perhaps a glimmering sense of space. This is the origin of the ‘internal landscape’ (Weintrobe, 2018) that lies at the core of being human, a landscape that will be found and re-found as we go through life via experiences of nature, time and the universe. That sense of being something so small in something so vast is the foundational containment available to all of us.

The role of the other

Together with this foundation of interconnection with the other-than-human (place, plants, animals), there is the containment to be had from other humans. A capacity that is internalised through encounters with others who, when we are troubled, provide the right balance of support (compassion, recognition) and challenge (perspective, a different point of view) to help us. Such encounters provide a containing psychological space in which experiences such as grief, hurt and rage arising from personal or political events can be digested (Winnicott, 1960; Bion, 1962).

Containing conversations

Containment is crucial to any difficult conversation, including conversations about climate change (Randall and Brown, 2015). A person must first feel that they have been understood before they might reach for a new understanding. Have their feelings, which might include resentment, been understood by you? Have the difficulties and dilemmas they face in making changes in their life been recognised? Do they feel that you are interested in them, curious to know more about their difficulties, or not? If these things are absent then a relationship in which new insights and different perspectives might occur is also absent.

Social containment

Having a sense of attunement to others provides containment, as does the realisation that one is not alone in having these thoughts and feelings. This is key to innovations such as Climate Cafés.

The solidarity of a group undoubtedly contributes to containment, but how might containment be provided at a cultural rather than individual level? Traditionally, this was one of the roles of ritual, particularly those marking key rites of passage in the life of the individual and community. The sharing of stories and dreams also performed this function, as did community leadership, and the role of village elders and wise women.

Whilst in modern society these have been largely lost in their original form, they can be, and are, created through works of art and fiction, through the adoption of creative ritual in environmental movements and protests (such as the Keystone Pipeline), and via containing political leadership (Alford, 1994) such as that offered by Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela and, today perhaps, Jacinda Ardern.

References

Alford, C.F. (1994). Leadership. In Group psychology and political theory. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Bion, W.R. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann.

Randall, R. and Brown, A. (2015). In time for tomorrow? The carbon conversations handbook. The Surefoot Effect.

Weintrobe, S. (2018). Communicating psychoanalytic ideas about climate change: a case study. In Garvey, P, and Long, K. (Eds.). The Klein tradition. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.

Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The theory of the parent-infant relationship. In Winnicott, D.W. (1976). The maturational processes and the facilitating environment: studies in the theory of emotional development. London: Hogarth Press.

precious earth

Compassion... may have an important role to play in helping us to face the enormity of the earth’s ecological and climate emergencies...

Compassion has many different facets. It can be thought of as an emotion, an attitude, a trait like disposition or a motivation. It is “a multi-textured response to pain, sorrow and anguish. It includes kindness, empathy, generosity and acceptance” and it is “the capacity to open to the reality of suffering and aspire to its healing” (Feldman and Kuyken, 2011). It enables us to respond with courage but also with an acceptance of the limitations of our powers and resources. Compassion can be directed towards our own suffering and towards the suffering of others.

Implicit within compassion are positive feelings of warmth, benevolence and love. These positive feelings don’t suppress the negative, but rather they add an additional layer or dimension. With compassion we move away from pity, which can often be experienced from a perspective of superiority. With pity we see ourselves as different from or above those who are suffering; with compassion we recognise that suffering is universal.

Cultivating compassion

We all have the potential for compassion within us, but it can also be cultivated through compassion training. Often this training is based on a foundation of mindfulness, which helps us to be fully present with our experience, enabling us to respond skillfully rather than to react. Through this process we can learn to move towards our discomfort or difficult emotions, rather than trying to move away from them.

Cultivating compassion can enable us to respond to our own suffering and the suffering of others without being overwhelmed or succumbing to empathy fatigue (Klimecki and Singer, 2012) as well as helping us to deal with feelings of guilt and shame (Held and Owens, 2015). Compassion, therefore, may have an important role to play in helping us to face the enormity of the earth’s ecological and climate emergencies without resorting to sophisticated psychological defence mechanisms such as splitting. It can also help us to widen our circle of empathy, reducing in-group/out-group differentiations and fostering a compassionate response to the suffering of all humans, non-humans and the natural world (Pfattheicher and Sassenrath, 2016).

Compassion in action

Importantly, compassion has been shown to increase our sense of agency and our motivation to help (Leiberg, Klimecki and Singer, 2011). The recent Extinction Rebellion protests, dubbed the ‘Compassionate Revolution’, are a powerful example of this. Feelings of grief and sorrow, arising from an understanding of the scale of the environmental destruction we are now experiencing, were transmuted into non-aggressive (but disruptive and determined), acts of love and kindness. Protestors courageously faced arrest and potential imprisonment with chants of “We love you. We do this for your children”. Perhaps all of us can learn lessons from this as we face the eco challenges that arise in our every day lives.

References

Feldman, C. and Kuyken, W. (2011). Compassion in the landscape of suffering. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), pp. 143-155.

Klimecki, O. and Singer, T. (2012). Empathic distress fatigue rather than compassion fatigue? Integrating findings from empathy research in psychology and social neuroscience. In: Oakley, A. Knafo, G. Madhaven and D. Wilson (Eds.). Pathalogical Altruism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Held, P. and Owens, G.P. (2015). Effects of self-compassion workbook training on trauma-related guilt in a sample of homeless veterans: a pilot study. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 71(6), pp. 513-526

Pfattheicher, S., Sassenrath, C. and Schindler, S. (2016). Feelings for the suffering of others and the environment. Environment and Behavior, 48(7), pp. 929-945.

Leiberg, S., Klimecki, O. and Singer, T. (2011). Short-term compassion training increases prosocial behavior in a newly developed prosocial game. PLoS ONE 6(3): e17798. [Online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017798

 

Photograph courtesy of Robin Pope (Instagram: @RobinLDN)

Page 2 of 3

© Climate Psychology Alliance 2021. Site by Arctic Bee