Climate change making you anxious? There's a therapist who can help you with that

The nascent field of eco-therapy is arising in response to the existential horrors posed by climate change

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published January 9, 2022 10:00AM (EST)

Growth of trees in drought crisis (Getty Images/R_Tee)
Growth of trees in drought crisis (Getty Images/R_Tee)

Therapy looks a little different for Amanda Stemen's clients.

Instead of meeting in an indoor office — perhaps one prototypically decorated with a fiddle-leaf fig plant, succulents, a noise machine, a chair on one side and a couch with very accessible tissues on the other — Stemen meets her clients outside, in nature. That's because Stemen isn't an average talk therapist, but an eco-therapist seeking to help her clients heal from the great outdoors.

"We meet outdoors, and use that as the catalyst to talk about the connections in their life to nature, to their spiritual beliefs or connections to others and to themselves, as a way to help them heal and grow," Stemen tells Salon. "A lot of it's centered around mindfulness and awareness of their bodies and how they feel in the outdoors, as well as just being present with the natural healing that we get from nature."

An average session generally looks like this: Stemen and her client meet in a park in Los Angeles. Stemen orchestrates some sort of mindfulness practice for her client to start — maybe a meditation, but something "grounding." Usually, they then proceed to take a walk, hike, sit under a tree or at a picnic table, and discuss what's bothering them that day.

"Sometimes it can be more physical, like talking about 'what does it feel like to have your feet on the ground?' Or, 'how does it feel to touch these leaves?' especially if they have a really difficult time grounding themselves," Stemen says. "And then that's more often mixed in with processing their thoughts and feelings as we're in nature."

While eco-therapy can be helpful for people with anxiety, Stemen says, there is a specific kind of anxiety in which eco-therapy is especially helpful: climate anxiety, also known as eco-anxiety. In a 2017 report, the American Psychological Association (APA) defined eco-anxiety as "a chronic fear of environmental doom." While it's not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), meaning it's not a mental health condition that can be officially diagnosed, there is no question that an increasing number of people are experiencing something that fits within the APA's definition.

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According to a study published in The Lancet last year, which surveyed 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 in 10 countries, more than 45 percent of those surveyed said that distress over climate change affected their daily life and ability to function. Seventy-five percent said that the future was "frightening," and 50 percent expressed feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and guilt about the climate.

Indeed, climate anxiety is manifesting in big ways in real life — for instance, causing many to rethink having kids. Don Orkoskey, a photographer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, tells Salon that at the beginning of the pandemic, he sought out professional help for his climate anxiety that he had been experiencing as part of general anxiety since the economic crisis of 2007. While he didn't specifically seek out eco-therapy, he has found that mindfulness practices have helped with his condition.

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"I see my therapist once a week, virtually once a week, and at least at least twice a month we discuss my climate anxiety," Orkoskey said. "There's always some trigger, a report from the UN or the most recent climate summit."

Eco-therapists say that spending time in nature, even though the demise of it is what creates the anxiety, could be the best way to cope — in part, because it can inspire people to take action, and accept the present moment for what it is.

Emily Pellegrino, an eco-therapist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, tells Salon that she sees many clients with climate anxiety.

"People tend to find a lot of metaphors in nature and are able to see the resilience in nature, and then kind of hold onto that for themselves," Pellegrino says. "They're able to connect to that resiliency and incorporate that more into their own life as well."

Pellegrino added she sees a lot of clients who are very stressed about climate change, and thus feel like it's out of their control and little they can do to change the future. She added that oftentimes these clients are having an existential crisis as well.

"When we start to incorporate eco therapy, it encourages them to take small steps in terms of volunteering or picking up trash on the beach — small things that help them connect with the environment a little more," Pellegrino says. " I don't think it necessarily takes that feeling away, but I do think it helps them get a little bit more connected and creates a sense of hopefulness that taking these small little steps can create some bigger change."

Eco-therapy is a small field in the world of climate psychology, but it is a growing one especially as more people suffer from climate anxiety. Indeed, the psychology industry as a whole has recognized the importance of investing in solutions around climate anxiety.

In an op-ed published in Psychiatric News, a newsletter published by the American Psychiatric Association, Gary Belkin, the former executive deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, wrote: "We are all psychologically unprepared to face the accelerating existential crisis of climate and ecological change that will further deepen other destructive fault lines in our society."

"The psychosocial demands of the climate crisis also call for an examination of how our clinical formulations and treatments can reinforce counterproductive extracting, hyper individuation, monetizing, producing, consuming, and commodifying self-identities and values," he continued.

Pellegrino said she believes that there is a "huge future" for eco-therapy.

"I think it might help if there's more research around eco-therapy," Pellegrino said. "There's been a ton of research around being in nature, looking at nature images, and how it can help with reducing depression, stress and mood."

Pellegrino said in her practice, it has certainly helped people cope.

"From the people who I have worked with, no one's ever gone to eco-therapy and said, 'that wasn't helpful,'" Pellegrino said.

Read more about climate change

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Climate Anxiety Climate Change Mental Health Reporting