Climate change brings up some hard emotions, but, a psychologist says, there can be joy in the struggle

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You’ve talked to your extended family to convince them of the dangers of climate change. You read all the news stories about how climate change worsens, wildfires and hurricanes. Maybe you go to climate protests or lead initiatives at your workplace. How is all of that impacting you, and your peace of mind?

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple checked in with Mary Beth Mannarino, a clinical psychologist and professor emerita at Chatham University. She’s been involved in activism related to the climate crisis and in teaching health care professionals about connections between the natural world, human health and wellbeing.


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Kara HolsoppleWhat are some of the psychological impacts of climate change for activists working on this issue or for anyone who looks around and is concerned?

Mary Beth Mannarino: Well, let me start by focusing a little bit on some of the reactions that are often troublesome to the people having them. Emotions like sadness, fear and anxiety. Grief is a very common reaction, and a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, of being overwhelmed.

Those are some of the more common negative psychological reactions that we have. I use that word negative because these aren’t pleasant emotions to experience. But I also want to emphasize that they can kind of be compost, that if you deal with him, help you move into a better place where you can be part of the solution for the problems.

HolsoppleYou mentioned grief, which is something that most of us have felt at one time or another. Can you explain a little bit more how that ties in to climate change? 

Mannarino: Of course, when you’re right in the pathway of some of the impacts of climate change, like a hurricane or the wildfires out west or the flooding that happens in the Midwest, the grief can be quite acute because you are actually in the face of loss. Then you’re losing belongings. You’re losing your home and a sense of place.

Grief can also be related to recognizing the gradual changes that are going on around you. For example, the loss of wild lands that used to be beyond your city’s limits, that are now being developed into suburban or exurban areas or shopping areas. You feel a sadness about that, and grief at that loss. There’s also something called anticipatory grief.

I recognized this in myself when I was visiting Banff National Park in Canada a couple of years ago, where we were looking at glaciers. The grief came because I was seeing what was ahead. I could see with my eyes how the glaciers had shrunken just in recent times, and I knew in my gut that more of that was ahead. Often when I go to beautiful natural places, I have a twinge of that anticipatory grief. It’s often experienced because I’m thinking about my children and grandchildren, and what may be ahead for them if we don’t get a handle on what’s going on with the climate.

Often, we try to avoid that grief, or suppress it, because it’s painful. It’s really important to look at it, you know, the sadness and heaviness of it. It’s part of what makes us human — we care and we’re attached.

HolsoppleI’m thinking of hopelessness or maybe feeling overwhelmed — how can people turn around those feelings so they don’t get stuck in them and continue to keep caring and maybe acting? 

Mannarino: A lot of the research shows that taking action of any kind, either in the public sphere, as in public protests or getting out the vote for candidates who understand climate science and have a plan to address the problems. Or taking action in your own home, making better decisions about diet and transportation, and the level of consumerism. Those can offset some of the negative problems that can empower people to where they feel less hopeless.

The second way that we activists, people interested in fighting climate change, can deal with the stresses of doing that is by doing inner work. One aspect of inner work is really making sure that you’re taking care of yourself: that you’re getting enough rest, that you’re eating well, that you’re engaged in recreational activities or activities that restore you.

Another component of inner work, which is really interesting, is something called meaning-making coping. This has been explored often in relation to how people bounce back or even grow after a major disaster or after a loss of some kind that just kind of shakes their world.

The issue of climate change or the climate crisis is something that looms over all of us and the activists who address it. What I find in conversations with them is that they really keep going and keep themselves fueled for the work by exploring and kind of amplifying what they believe about themselves, and what meaning they make of themselves in their work, also what they believe about the world and what their role in the world is.

Often in meaning-making, you revisit your purpose in life. Is your purpose in life just to kind of take care of yourself, or is your purpose in life actively trying to make things better for not just yourself, but everybody else?

Holsopple: So the meaning-making kind of buoys you up?

Mannarino: Yes, absolutely. And it keeps you going — and kind of the antithesis of the meaning-making or the more positive meaning-making that makes you resilient in this work is saying, ‘well, nothing I do matters. The world is a bad place. I’m just in it for myself. And so I’m just not even going to think about this.’

HolsoppleWe’ve been talking about a lot of negative emotions and psychological impacts. Are there positive feelings that could be associated with climate change and working on this issue or caring about this issue

Mannarino: Absolutely. I think there’s a certain joy and satisfaction that comes in learning about and participating in this massive, massive problem that’s affecting everyone across the world. It feels good to be part of a big group of people who are trying to make things better, not just for yourself, but for people in your community and across the world. So joy and satisfaction, I think, are two things that often come up. There’s also a good sense of camaraderie that comes when you unite with other people and you work with them.

Mary Beth Mannarino is a clinical psychologist and professor emerita at Chatham University.

Editor’s note: This is a general conversation about climate change and psychological impacts, but if you feel acute distress about this topic you should seek out a professional to talk with. 

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