Sarah Lowe works as a clinical psychologist at Yale School of Public Health and is an assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Photo courtesy Jeffrey R. Moran
Climate change has a significant impact on how humans live and work. Floods, wildfires, and other extreme weather can change the landscape and cause property loss.
Climate change has changed the way humans think about themselves.
Both kinds of distress — the acute trauma of immediate disasters and the background sense of existential doom — require different responses, both personal and from society.
Sarah LoweShe is both a Yale School of Public Health clinical psychologist as well as an assistant professor in the social and behavioral sciences department. CNBC spoke to her about these effects on human wellbeing.
Here are some excerpts from Lowe’s conversation with CNBC. These excerpts have been edited to be concise and clear.
Nearly all states have been affected by climate change, regardless of whether they’ve experienced a natural disaster or severe weather, wildfires, tornadoes, etc.
It is extremely stressful to experience a disaster. And for some people, they can be traumatic both directly — by leading to direct threats to one’s life, for serious injuries, bereavement, destruction of one’s property — or indirectly. As we all know, stress can cause aggression or violence in some individuals, and this was true even with the pandemic.
Intimate partner violence, child abuse, and other forms of trauma can increase after disasters.
Gypsy Rick smokes outside a cooling room during a heat wave that hit Portland, Oregon (U.S.A.), August 11, 2021. REUTERS/Mathieu Lewis-Rolland
For people who don’t face serious life threats, it is stressful if if part of your property floods or your property or possessions get damaged, or if you have to evacuate for an unknown period of time — that is very disruptive, especially with the idea that this could be a regular thing that you have to deal with.
We are aware that disasters may have mental health implications. There are also increased incidences of many psychiatric disorders and symptoms, including depression, generalized anxiousness, substance use and disruptions to health, such as healthy eating habits and exercise. These can have long-term negative effects on your mental health.
The physical effects of natural disasters like wildfire smoke or mold exposure can be severe. The sedentary behavior that might come from disruptions and routines can trigger physical health ailments or increase the risk of them — that then are intertwined with mental health. They can also have mental health implications that are not as apparent.
Preparation at all levels is crucial, to the best of our ability. All of this is tied to the social determinants that affect health such as income, housing, and employment. Some people are able to invest in sump pumps and generators to keep their homes from being flooded again.
Individually, you should do your best. This could mean having a plan for what happens if it does happen again. Planning is the exercise of some control.
The community can invest in infrastructure that will protect them from the effects of disasters. The better for our mental health, the more we can protect individuals from the most severe and traumatic events that occur during disasters.
The aftermath of Hurricane Delta in Creole Louisiana (U.S.), October 10, 2020, is shown as a home that was completely destroyed. Photograph taken using a drone.
Adrees Latif – Reuters| Reuters
You should feel confident in your community and the government you trust that they won’t put residents at risk. This is a difficult thing to do because of the high cost. You can’t put your money into other things.
Businesses need to prepare too. Especially if they are going to provide essential services in the event of a disaster. But also take care of your employees. We know that longer-term stressors like financial or job loss, can be an indicator of mental health. Many people affected by Hurricane Katrina felt that their companies looked after them. They provided financial aid, or, if they had a national chain to help them find work in the area they needed. These things made all the difference.
The importance of psychological resilience can be found across the board. It requires attention to the social determinants, health risks and exposures. So making sure that people have their basic needs met — that they have good housing, that they’re able to find gainful employment, that they have health care, that they have access to mental health services and that they’re covered, that people are not working 100 hours a week and not getting by. These things will make society healthier and more productive.
We need to do more at the individual and community levels to build resilience in children, teens, and their families. In school, that means building in a socio-emotional curriculum to foster the psychological capacities that promote resilience — a sense of agency, goal-orientation, hope, social social skills and social support, a sense of purpose, emotion regulation. These capacities are in addition to the academic skills we all know are essential. I admit that schools and teachers are already under a lot pressure.
We need to look for ways to incorporate that in our family lives, as well into the communities, religious organizations and after-school programs. This will help us work towards creating a resilient, trauma-informed, healthy population. This is going to be crucial as we face increasingly intense and complex stressors.
You should take time to look after yourself. This could be through exercise, meditation, or simply spending some time outdoors. It’s this that builds resilience.
We have to distinguish between the traumatic stressors that can happen because of disasters, or other climate-change-related exposures or displacement, and this free flowing climate-change anxiety — we know this is happening, it’s scary, it’s sad, and what do we do about that at a bigger scale?
It is an existential danger. Many people worry about their futures and make decisions regarding childbearing. Are I going to have children and raise them in a world where there is no hope? This is a legitimate concern. It doesn’t matter if that happens in your lifetime, or the lifetime of your children’s. Thinking about the future for the human race can be a bit alarming. That’s understandable.
Because it is not a threat to one’s life or sexual integrity, existential anxiety doesn’t fit into the definition of trauma. Trauma leaders would argue that it is not traumatic. Although it might cause anxiety and stress, it is not a traumatic event. However, it may trigger PTSD.
However, post-traumatic stress symptoms can be triggered by seeing graphic images or images from places affected by natural disasters. This includes nightmares and avoidance.
People shouldn’t be buried in the sand. However, we want people to be confronted with the realities of climate change. Therefore, I wouldn’t say “Stop all information regarding climate change.” My motto is “Get the facts, move on.” It doesn’t mean you have to read each article on the same topic. You can choose to either engage or disengage if it is distressing.
Knowing about climate change’s potential consequences can bring on intense emotions. These include sadness and grief as well anxiety. You may feel a profound sadness or despair about the changes in our environment. Solastalgia refers to a nostalgia for the home. This is a feeling of homesickness that occurs when one feels at home. It’s being at home and feeling sadness about the climate change. Then there is climate change anxiety.
The importance of validating the emotions of others is crucial. Older generations may want to claim that the younger generation is too sensitive, and are causing problems. Take the time to really listen to young people and hear their concerns. It is perfectly normal, and even acceptable, for people to feel sad or anxious about future generations. Allow people to feel their emotions and empower them with the tools to manage their feelings.
A little girl is playing with sand in protest by Cornwall Climate Youth Alliance and Fridays for Future and Climate Live at Gyllyngvase, Falmouth. This was on the sidelines to the G7 summit, which took place in Cornwall, Britain, May 11, 2021.
Tom Nicholson, Reuters| Reuters
A landscape can change and it is sad. The loss of natural beauty is a sad thing. It’s scary to imagine a world where the Earth is no longer habitable by human beings. It is frightening. These are valid emotions. You need to know the difference between these valid feelings and those that are clinically diagnosed. It is possible to cross the line where anxiety about climate change can become an anxiety disorder.
It is important to be aware of signs of extreme distress. These feelings include sadness, grief and anger. They can also affect their ability to function and engage in daily life and in combating climate change.
These are signs to look out for: Does your appetite seem skewed? Do you have trouble sleeping? Is it uncomfortable to be around people? Do you find it difficult to get up from your bed each morning?
You may be unable to attend work or class, or if you feel overwhelmed by anxiety, it could indicate that your anxiety is more clinical. It could be that friends or family notice that you appear sad or anxious. If you become more irritable or distracted by your anxiety, you may have a diagnosis. If your distress is causing you to feel ill, like being unable to sleep or to rest properly, it could be a sign that you have lost your appetite. And certainly if you’re having thoughts of death, dying, self injury — those are like warning signs.
These signs may indicate that you need help. You can seek treatment and work with your doctor to address your feelings and thoughts about climate change and any other issues in your life. It is not our goal to make people feel anxious and prevent them from functioning.
Anxiety is a function. It can also motivate you to take action. The limited research that I have done on climate anxiety has shown that people who are most anxious are not suffering from general anxiety disorders or depression. According to preliminary research, climate anxiety can be prevented from developing into clinical depression by environmental activism.
On Friday, November 5, 2021 at the Climate Summit COP26, young protestors took part in Fridays For Future, Glasgow.
AFP | AFP | Getty Images
Consider helping the most vulnerable when engaging in climate activism.
Feeling like you’re making a difference can help foster a feeling of empowerment and similar agency. Participating in a group can foster a sense collective efficacy, social support and a feeling of belonging. This will allow you to know that there is a network of people with similar values who are willing and able to work together for positive change.
Interviews and open-ended questions were conducted with youth. It can be difficult when people realize that collective action might not make any difference. This is because it relies on those with great power to effect major changes they are unwilling or unable to make. It can be overwhelming and discouraging, but I think that engaging in collective actions, such as those seen in social movements, does make a significant difference. Sometimes it’s slow.