If you didn’t read Part 1, click here to catch up.
Part 2: Climate Stress and Trauma in the Body
In his seminal text The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk tells the story of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a new diagnosis within the mental health field. He describes how this new category revolutionized treatment options initially for Vietnam War veterans and others returning from combat experiences, and subsequently for the millions of people who exhibit PTSD or complex PTSD symptoms . Van der Kolk writes, “Systematically identifying the symptoms and grouping them together into a disorder finally gave a name to the suffering of people who were overwhelmed by horror and helplessness.”  It’s important to note that diagnoses are debated within the mental health field . The point I want to emphasize here is that understanding the myriad lived experiences of combat veterans within the context of trauma helped to demystify the phenomenon that was occurring. The lens of trauma can help explain the diverse and sometimes confounding responses that people can have to the same experience. Applying a trauma-informed lens illuminates nuances in relationships between events, environmental and systemic conditions, and behaviors. It also opens up holistic pathways for healing that address underlying problems rather than topical symptoms.
In the context of climate collapse, we are seeing people responding in different ways. Youth activists are leading thousands to march for immediate intergovernmental action. Some people are wrought with despair and hopelessness as the atmospheric carbon count climbs and global ice melts. Yet others are not tuning in to what is happening or how they feel about it, instead preoccupied by other needs and crises. Despite the differences in how we respond, the current conversation about these responses (which itself is fairly sparse) has been narrowed to primarily grief and anxiety — a simplification that I argue is a disservice to the ecosystem of experiences and emotions that people are living through, as well as the expansiveness of solutions that are possible. Our nervous systems are highly sophisticated, generating refined strategies to survive this existential crisis. We must be more clear and precise about what is happening if we are to be best-equipped to address it. We must name climate stress and trauma — primary, historical, and secondary — and distinguish between the different ways that it is expressed in our bodies if we are to heal and restore balance to our planet.
Beyond Ecological Grief and Anxiety
Climate grief or ecological grief has become a catch-all for much of the emotional and mental health experiences occurring in the context of the climate crisis. Ecological grief has been described as:
- “grief associated with physical ecological losses (land, ecosystems and species); grief associated with disruptions to environmental knowledge and loss of identity; and grief associated with anticipated future ecological losses” 
- being accompanied by strong emotions, like anxiety, hopelessness, despair 
- “a response to actual and past ecological loss or a reaction to future situations that trigger the current loss” 
Two other common terms to describe similar distress are solastalgia and eco-anxiety. Solastalgia is mental, emotional, or spiritual distress resulting from the transformation of places and landscapes of importance to the individual . Solastalgia has been categorized as a form of ecological grief, as it relates to loss of landscape or place . Eco-anxiety is distress due to anticipated threats and losses . Being more future-oriented, eco-anxiety has been distinguished from ecological grief and its sub-concept solastalgia, both of which have been considered to be oriented to the present and past. However, anxiety can be a present-day symptom from past traumas as well, which clouds the temporal-based distinction between these terms.
As this discussion reveals, there is quite a bit of ambiguity as to the differences and commonalities among these concepts. My intention here is not to clear up that ambiguity, but rather to add nuance. Explaining peoples’ experiences of climate-related distress only in terms of grief and anxiety is an insufficient naming of what is happening. These terms do not attend to the more complex and intergenerational processes that are at play. Instead, I propose that we apply the lens of trauma to create a more robust and nuanced infrastructure in which to organize and make sense of the myriad forms of distress people are experiencing due to the climate crisis.
Specifically, a trauma-informed approach offers two important shifts when compared to ecological grief and anxiety. First, it expands the definition of the source of distress beyond an external source to include internal and inherited sources. For example, we typically grieve a loss that is not caused by our own actions or choice, and we feel anxious about things that are out of our control. These both situate the source of the distress in a person or process outside of the individual experiencing distress. While trauma is often caused by actions that are not within our control, it also can occur due to our own actions (in the case of what Resmaa Menakem calls a “moral injury”) as well as actors and situations in our own ancestral lineages .
The second accompanying shift a trauma-informed approach makes is highlighting the need for action in the community and system, in addition to the individual. With grief and anxiety, treatment is generally focused on the person experiencing distress and actions they can take, which in some cases involve family, friends, and partners. Trauma, however, contextualizes the individual within the family or household, community, organization or workplace, institutions, systems, and landscapes. The individual’s distress is understood as a factor of all these scales at play with each other, and to heal from the trauma, action must be taken to transform the individual as well as external conditions at multiple scales.
Before I move on, I want to emphasize that grief, anxiety, and trauma responses are all normal, adaptive responses to the climate crisis, including past and anticipated future damages. I align with the mental health practitioners who are cautioning against pathologizing these responses, and instead are working to normalize them and to encourage collective support and care for processing and healing .
Understanding Stress Responses
In order to unpack what climate trauma looks like, we need a shared basic understanding of stress responses . The way we respond to stressors in our lives, both small and large, depends on how our nervous system perceives threats and whether it’s able to respond effectively, or polyvagal theory in short. When we sense a threat, our first line of defense is social engagement. We seek help and protection from and with other humans. If this doesn’t work, the nervous system becomes more activated and tries different tactics. We may go into fight mode, in which we move toward the threat to overcome it. Or we may enter into flight, moving away from the threat toward safety. If neither of these defenses work, the nervous system again becomes more activated and enters into freeze or dissociation. We may collapse, try to appease whatever is causing the threat, our body may literally start shutting down for protection, or we may dissociate or “leave” our bodies and numb ourselves to any impact. This all happens before we have a logical thought of what to do about the situation. If one of these strategies works — either social engagement, fight, flight, freeze, appease, or dissociation — to end the threat and return our nervous system to a sense of safety, then we will complete the stress response cycle. However, when we aren’t successful in ending the threat, then trauma occurs and the state that we get stuck in becomes “imprinted” in our nervous system.
On a daily basis, we are constantly fluctuating between these nervous system states. A simple email from a supervisor giving us a deadline can send us into a stress response. We become activated, we respond to the perceived threat, then we’re able to regulate back into a state of safety and calm — without even cognitively recognizing all that’s happening. These types of stressors are generally within what Drs. Dan Siegel and Pat Ogden call a “window of tolerance,” the range of activation that a person can respond to effectively and return to a regulated state.
Everyone’s window of tolerance is different depending on their life experiences, genetics, epigenetics, and systemic conditions. If someone has experienced trauma, their window of tolerance tends to be very small. Situations that other people may easily tolerate can trigger the nervous system into a state that mirrors the original trauma experienced. The body doesn’t know that it’s in a different time, place, and situation — it only perceives a threat that is similar enough and returns to the “imprinted” trauma state.
Each person may have a dominant stress-response strategy that they tend to employ more frequently than others. This is also informed by life experiences, genetics, epigenetics, and systemic conditions. For example, if you grew up as someone assigned female at birth , and you were told in your family as well as from society that you had to put others’ needs in front of your own, you might tend to appease others rather than having a healthy fight response, like advocating for yourself and holding boundaries .
You can start to learn the patterns of your nervous system by noticing subtle sensations in your body throughout your day. For example, what happens when your housemate or partner doesn’t do something you’ve repeatedly asked them to, or is playing loud music when you’re on an important phone call for work? Do you feel your heart rate increase, some anger rise within you? Do you feel nervous or panicked about what to do? Do you feel shut-down, perhaps a numbness to the situation? Noticing these subtle and often brief sensations to everyday stressors can help you discern how your nervous system uniquely works.
An important point is that our experiences layer onto our nervous system over time. Trauma can occur not just from a single event, but from recurring or chronic experiences . Furthermore, our nervous systems are not entirely “clean slates” when we are born — we can inherit patterning (through epigenetics), and then further layer on patterning from our lived experiences. By the time we are in early adulthood, we likely have very complex nervous system responses and it can be difficult to “see” how all of the layers function in relation to each other. When we start to notice how we respond to stressors, it usually is a slow process of uncovering, layer by layer, the patterning or shaping of the nervous system.
Climate Stress and Trauma
In the context of climate change, our responses, thoughts, and emotions can be mapped to nervous system responses. The figure below is a working model to be discussed and revised as our understanding deepens.
In a regulated state, when our sense of safety, dignity, and belonging is intact, we are in social engagement mode. We are grounded in our sense of self and act with presence and openness. This looks like engaging in climate advocacy with healthy boundaries, ensuring our needs are met and we don’t end up burned out. It looks like having friends and family and community to talk with about the emotions we feel around the climate crisis. It means having resources to respond effectively to extreme weather events and other climate impacts either where you live or occurring elsewhere. It means trying to make changes to live more sustainably, with compassion and care.
Under initial stress or activation, we enter fight or flight mode. In fight, we may feel rage at the fossil fuel industry. We may show up to protests or sit-ins to block new oil and gas infrastructure. We may feel like the only way we are going to survive is if we fight against everyone who supports the status quo. In flight mode, we may be in a spiral of eco-anxiety. We may be terrified about what the future might hold for us and our children. Each piece of news might throw us into a dizzy of panic and dread.
Further activation may bring us into appease, freeze, or dissociation. In appease, we may experience shame or guilt about being a part of the global crisis. We might feel like it is our fault as an individual, and want to go to any length to solve the problem. This also might look like taking action in a performative sense, such as purchasing eco-friendly products without engaging in efforts to support systemic change. Freeze mode might mean feeling hopeless that we’ll ever resolve the crisis. We may feel stuck in the overwhelming enormity of the crisis, unsure of how we can help, whether we’ll have any impact, and where to begin. Dissociation encompasses a range of experiences. It could mean denial of the crisis itself, arguing that it is a hoax or conspiracy theory. It might look like apathy or numbness, like we don’t care about what’s happening or don’t feel the impact personally. We might avoid information about the crisis, choosing to ignore it so we don’t have to feel the impact. It also might look like cynicism, believing that the planet is better off without humans and will persist after us, albeit in a different state.
It is important to note that while these climate stress responses are presented linearly, the nervous system doesn’t necessarily respond in that way. As discussed, every body experiences stress differently depending on life history, genetics, epigenetics, and systemic conditions. Some people’s systems may engage more in appease mode, while others may more often have a fight response. Some people may have a greater window of tolerance of stressors and can respond effectively through social engagement, while others may engage other responses to lower thresholds of stress.
Racial Disparities in Climate Trauma
Considering these dynamics, the way each person’s nervous system responds to climate-related stress and whether they experience trauma is shaped by their existing nervous system patterning, social support network, access to resources, exposure to climate change impacts, and other social, economic, geographic, and physiological factors. In general, people with pre-existing traumas, such as from experiencing oppression, abuse, and/or neglect, are likely to have smaller windows of tolerance to effectively respond to climate stress through social engagement and, as a result, are likely to disproportionately experience climate trauma. Furthermore, we know that Black and Indigenous communities and other communities of color, as well as low-income households, are experiencing disproportionate impacts from climate change, including displacement, loss of ancestral and culturally-important lands and species, financial setbacks, and physical and mental health impacts . The ensuing stress and trauma from climate impacts layer onto existing traumas these communities experience from systemic racism, settler colonialism, intergenerational poverty, etc.
Furthermore, as discussed in Part 1 of this series, climate trauma is not simply from major events like hurricanes and wildfires. It is unfolding in a slower and more insidious way through everyday moments, such as hearing news of species loss and ice melt, having to drive because there is no alternative transportation option, and preparing for next summer’s heat waves by saving to pay for air conditioning. It is witnessing a monumental force beyond your control affect your life and your children’s lives. It is the heavy legacy of centuries of separation from nature and/or dispossession of land where your people and ancestors have lived since time immemorial.
Climate stress responses are born from historical, intergenerational, and developmental traumas of our past, both related and unrelated to environmental degradation. They remind us we are living, breathing histories and lineages. How we show up now to this particular moment of crisis is a product of where we come from, who came before us, and how we’ve lived up until today. Contextualizing climate-related mental and emotional stress within the framework of trauma engenders an accurate assessment of the climate crisis: that it is a symptom of historical and ongoing separation and dispossession, of systemic domination and extraction of land, ecosystems, and bodies. A trauma-informed approach is therefore essential to radically addressing (radical meaning root) the problems causing the dis-ease, rather than simply addressing the symptoms.
Upcoming in the Series
In the final part of this series, I’ll discuss pathways toward transformative healing, including using the climate stress and trauma response framework for supporting personal healing and action, and naming collective repair as a third pillar of climate action alongside mitigation and adaptation. You can read Part 1 of the series here.
Author’s Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including the graphics, are for informational purposes only and are not intended to represent or substitute professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The author is not a licensed or formally trained mental health professional. Always seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions or needs you may have regarding your mental and emotional health.
 Cloitre M, Hyland P, Bisson JI, Brewin CR, Roberts NP, Karatzias T, Shevlin M. ICD-11 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the United States: A Population-Based Study. J Trauma Stress. 2019 Dec;32(6):833–842. doi: 10.1002/jts.22454. Epub 2019 Dec 4. PMID: 31800131.
 Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score. 2014. Penguin Books, New York.
 For some people, receiving a diagnosis can be a source of relief. For others, it brings a whole suite of challenges, including limitations or imposition of prescribed treatments and the pathologizing of very normal human experiences. Check out this article by Jay Watts in The Guardian to learn more about the debate: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/24/mental-health-labels-diagnosis-study-psychiatrists
 Cunsolo, Ashlee and Neville R. Ellis, “Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss,” Nature Climate Change, 8: 275–281, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0092-2
 Comtesse, H.; Ertl, V.; Hengst, S.M.C.; Rosner, R.; Smid, G.E. “Ecological Grief as a Response to Environmental Change: A Mental Health Risk or Functional Response?” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18, 734. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18020734
 Galway, L.P.; Beery, T.; Jones-Casey, K.; Tasala, K. Mapping the solastalgia literature: A scoping review study. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 2662.
 Menakem, Resmaa, My Grandmother’s Hands, Central Recovery Press (2017).
 For instance, see some of the folks who are working to build formal and informal networks of care in the recent article by Susan Shain in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/climate/climate-anxiety-stress.html. One of those featured is Dr. Jennifer Atkinson, an associate professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington-Bothell, who produces a podcast about climate grief called Facing it.
 There is a lot of information readily available from experts in this field about polyvagal theory. Some resources include: Dr. Stephen Porges, Dr. Dan Siegel, Dr. Pat Ogden, and Ruby Jo Walker.
 If you don’t know what this means or need a refresh, check out this video: https://youtu.be/Y19kYh6k7ls
 See Ruby Jo Walker’s accessible and brief overview about this on her website: https://rubyjowalker.com/polyvagal_theory.html
 You can read a brief intro to complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) at the National Center for PTSD website: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/essentials/complex_ptsd.asp
 There is a lot of excellent material online about this topic. For a brief and accessible overview, see this post by Aneesh Patnaik, Jiahn Son, Alice Feng, and Crystal Ade: https://psci.princeton.edu/tips/2020/8/15/racial-disparities-and-climate-change