The existential panic in "Don't Look Up" is real. I see it in my clients

As a therapist, I've observed the psychological effect of existential threats. "Don't Look Up" is spot-on

Published January 8, 2022 10:00AM (EST)

Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky and Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy in "Don't Look Up" (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)
Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky and Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy in "Don't Look Up" (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

About one-third of the way into Adam McKay's new film "Don't Look Up," there is a remarkable scene that takes place on the set of a vapid, "Good Morning America"-esque talk show. In this moment, the talking heads are lightly riffing, while a comet that will obliterate the Earth is en route to strike in six months — a fact that astronomy PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor, Dr. Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) are desperately trying to communicate. Dibiasky, appalled by the co-hosts' inspid banter, interrupts and screams directly at the camera: "We're all for sure 100% gonna f**kin' die."  

After Kate's livid outburst, she is dismissed in short order: the hosts joke that she needs "media training"; Dr. Mindy attempts to lighten the situation by saying "maybe I should have given her that extra Xanax." The world digs its heels in, happily avoiding paying attention to the terrified scientific community.

Critics love carping about how "Don't Look Up" — a thinly-veiled satire of the climate crisis — fails to deliver in the comedy department. But I found this ominous cultural critique rather apropos. As a psychotherapist, art therapist, and steering committee member of Climate Psychology Alliance North America, I see the film as an intriguing Trojan Horse — a means of enlightening the masses about climate psychology through the guise of entertainment. 

But beyond that, there is something psychologically very apt about the film — in the characters' reactions to the crisis precipitated by the comet, and in the fictional publics' milquetoast reaction to the looming threat of extinction.

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Anxious avoidance — a reflexive suppression of feelings — is one way in which we protect ourselves from confronting harsh truths. Laughing about celebrity gossip rather than thinking about impending death, as the public does in "Don't Look Up," is precisely what one would expect in this situation. Those with anxious avoidant behavior might squash down anything that pokes a hole in their preferred reality. Disavowal, or choosing to turn away from the climate emergency and focus on other things, is another form of avoidance.

I've seen this happen firsthand. During a California wildfire season several years ago, when the sky was dim and the air we breathed choked with smoke, haze, and particulates, I sat in my office chair preparing myself to meet with clients. The apocalypse out the window made my stomach hurt, but I was determined not to let any of my "stuff" enter the therapy room. I compartmentalized my feelings as best I could.

Other than an offhand comment about the inconvenience of the smoke, nary a client mentioned that wildfires were ravaging our state — something so blaringly obvious that the very air in the room reeked like a sour campfire. Surely, my clients had some feelings just as I did, and it affected them on various levels. But even in therapy, people find it difficult to acknowledge or express climate feelings that lurk deeply in the unconscious.

These days, I no longer compartmentalize the climate crisis in therapy sessions as I once did. My colleagues and I are learning to lead by example in the hopes of promoting a healthier response of engagement to our threatened "more-than-human-world."

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I will say that in general, as a climate-aware therapist, there is a deafening silence on the issue of climate change amongst adults in the therapy room. While I've been contacted by clients coming into therapy with climate anxiety as their main issue, the bulk come in for other reasons: life transitions, family, work or school, relationships or pandemic stress. If anyone brings up the subject of climate change, 8 out of 10 times it's a teenager.

Still, the topic of climate change seems to be affecting our mental health collectively on a deep level. More than 2/3 of Americans (67%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change. A 2021 international study of young people ages 16-25 indicates that 84% are at least moderately worried about climate change.

But how often does the topic come up at the dinner table? Amongst friends and neighbors? And, if it does, how long does the conversation last? And might films like "Don't Look Up" help with awareness?

In nearby communities directly impacted by wildfires, like Sonoma County, my colleagues are treating many more clients for climate-related mental health issues: PTSD, anxiety, depression, trauma.  And yet, a mere 40 miles away, in the Bay Area, there is an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. If people don't have to think about it, then they won't. To some extent they might make individual choices that they believe absolve them from that responsibility (e.g. driving an electric vehicle) -- a type of personal greenwashing.

If we stay absorbed in daily minutiae, refusing to acknowledge what is real, our outlook is bleak. Instead of linking arms to save the planet from a comet (or a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature increase), we Tweet and post and Like and Troll into cyber-oblivion. Not only are we the perpetrators of climate change on this planet, but we are also our worst enemy when it comes to doing anything about it. 

This tendency towards distracting ourselves to death is something that McKay's fictional comedy absolutely nails. "Don't Look Up" is a clever cultural mirror — conjuring the bodily stress response that many seek to avoid (tears, numbing, fast heartbeat, can't look away, dread). This type of emotional disruption is critical if we care about the future of this world.

British Psychoanalyst and author Sally Weintrobe argues that "Exceptionalism" is largely responsible for the climate crisis. An exceptionalist, neoliberal mindset gained traction in the 1980's, encouraging people to see themselves in idealized, all-deserving terms, vindicating them from both practical limits and morality. As a result, a culture of uncare and greed flourished — the fossil fuel industries and the housing crisis of 2008 are but two examples.

Indeed, as events of the film unfold, there is both a visceral disgust about the world we've created, as well as a gnawing sense of responsibility. The movie pulls a bait and switch, evolving from comedy to drama — but that's entirely the point.

When climate communication is too scientific, too alarmist, too abstract, or too subtle, people check out. McKay is reaching a segment of the population that's thinking: I'm slightly terrified about this, but I haven't fully admitted it to myself or others and I'd rather downplay it and think about other things.

From a climate psychology perspective, this is a story of defense mechanisms: there's President Orlean's (Meryl Streep) disavowal of the topic of the impending comet strike. There's Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance playing a tech robber-baron amalgam), whose magical thinking and opportunism reveals itself as vapid denialism. Then, there's the public itself, who are depicted as distracted, polarized, and easily herded. These are but a sample of the psychological complexity that we are up against in real life when we try to discuss existential crises like climate change.

Indeed, though it is distressing to think about ecological crises that threaten all of civilization, it is necessary to spur political action and stop us from killing the planet and ourselves.

Although the film offers a helpful (if dark) critique of American culture, it barely acknowledges what we know to be true about humanity during dark times. People resist and persist, they unite and grow stronger, and they force positive change. We have seen this before — from the Civil Rights movement to World War II Resistance to apartheid — and it is very much possible to spark a global climate movement.

Our best hope is multi-pronged: global-political determination, a new model of regeneration and a committed social movement. Hope lies in the power of the collective, of more voices chiming in, of civic action, forcing political, capitalist, and industry reckonings — only then the "Great Turning," as Joanna Macy calls it, will come. Filmmaking, storytelling, art, and music, are powerful forms of creative expression — inviting and reminding us to look up.

Read more on talking through the climate crisis:

By Ariella Cook-Shonkoff

Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a licensed mental health therapist and registered art therapist based in Berkeley, California.

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Climate Change Deep Dive Don't Look Up Eco-therapy Psychology