Climate change is an emotional issue that raises questions about what therapy is for
A recent New York Times Magazine article, “Climate Change Is Keeping Therapists Up at Night,” documents how therapists are confronting patients’ anxiety related to the present and pending horrors of climate change. As the article makes clear, climate change is very much a problem that creates a great deal of emotional distress, one that needs intervention. However, exactly what kind of intervention raises important questions about therapy, namely: Is therapy’s interest helping people tolerate intolerable things or helping people harness their emotionality to make change?
Therapy treats symptoms misaligned with a given reality, but with climate change, the dangers are real
One reasonable way of defining what therapy is for is that therapy is meant to treat symptoms that are misaligned with a given reality. For example, we don’t offer therapy to someone whose house is on fire, no matter how anxious and fearful they may be. For the same anxiety and fear triggered by, say, a car backfiring, we may consider some serious therapy. The sine qua non of therapy is suffering, but not all suffering is the domain of therapy to treat.
There are other kinds of therapy. Physical therapy for a sprained limb. Chemotherapy for certain types of cancer. Drug therapy for liver failure. Psychotherapy treats problems of the mind. Like climate change causes emotional distress, so do ailments like cancer, liver failure, and a sprained limb.
Does this mean that climate change has no place in the therapy room? No. People experiencing cancer can also benefit from therapy. It’s just that if the cancer isn’t being properly treated, that’s a problem therapy cannot solve. A therapist’s role in climate change should be demanding that the people responsible for addressing it do their jobs.
Therapy for climate anxiety should direct anxiety toward action
Anxiety, fear, sadness, and rage are not abstract emotional problems. Often they’re the most sensible way of being in the face of the brokenness of the world. Perhaps therapy can “treat these” as abstractions removed from justice, but I’m not so sure that’s truly therapeutic.
For instance, climate anxiety is a symptom and symptoms are worthy of care. But treating symptoms to the exclusion of treating underlying causes—in this case, climate change—is a form of malpractice. It’s as if a patient’s cancer treatment was going poorly and we helped the patient reconcile those feelings rather than advocate for better medical care. As with cancer, the danger is that therapists will simply treat the climate anxiety rather than directing that anxiety toward action such as demanding action from those in the position to do something about it.
Action may transform the anxiety itself by channeling it into advocacy or productive rage
The therapy, then, is a forum to identify an area of action, just as someone in medical treatment might work to identify how to get better medical care from a given hospital system. If we think about relieving anxiety, we might think about turning the volume down on it, but we might also think about that in terms of doing something with it, making use of it, or putting it to work. Climate action can transform the anxiety by channeling it into advocacy or productive rage.
When we’re enraged about something enraging like inaction about climate change, it is dehumanizing not to express that rage. Fear is a sensible response to something crazy, as is action. When we act up against injustice, we’re both impacting that injustice and orienting our being as active. When we do this, we remain anxious but no longer crazy—our being is aligned.