Embodying the Climate Crisis
Part 1 of a Series: Toward a Somatic Understanding of Climate Change, Trauma, and Transformative Healing — A Series
Part 1: Climate Trauma
In 2019, well before we knew what the next year would bring us, I got in my car to head north from my neighborhood in South Seattle to an appointment in the north part of the city. I merged onto I-5 and immediately hit traffic. This surprised me, since it was a Sunday morning. As I looked down the hill at the red and white lights, parallel rivers snaking into the distance, I felt my chest swell and immediately collapse as tears streamed down my cheeks. I shook and gasped for air between sobs. My stomach caved in, as if my body was trying to expel some toxin I had consumed. Grief dislodged from deep within me and moved up my spine. As my tears of sadness and sorrow waned, I felt a tightness burn across my chest. Rage welled within me, contorting my face into disgust. I breathed into my chest and stomach and allowed the fire to flow up and out of me. By the time I arrived at my destination, I felt more settled. Whispers of the emotions were still present, but I was able to be aware of them without feeling overwhelmed.
This experience was similar to what I’ve felt in very different circumstances. Since my late teens, I have had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms from witnessing my mom undergo repeated near-death experiences due to heart failure. Whenever I felt a grab (otherwise identified as a “trigger”), such as a coworker talking about their mom’s poor health or an ambulance racing by, my heart rate increased, my breathing became shallow, and sometimes I would start sobbing like I did in the car that day.
However, the experience in the car was not at all related to my mom’s health. It was from seeing the endless stream of cars — mine included — packing the interstate on a weekend, which represented to me the sheer impossibility of ever “solving” the climate crisis and an inevitable demise of our species and many others. Many people refer to this as climate anxiety or grief, but I knew from experience that it was a trauma response. What I didn’t understand was how I could have this response if I never had a specific traumatic event in the first place — how was this possible?
Cognitively I struggled with that question, but somatically, I knew the answer. I followed my gut feeling on a journey into research on trauma, somatics, and eco-anxiety to gather language to translate and express what my body knows and science corroborates. In this series of articles, I’ll be conveying this understanding with the hope that it will prompt dialogue, further study, and ultimately contribute to a deeper, trauma-informed understanding of climate change and accompanying investment in and attention toward healing.
The Paradox of Self-Destruction
The grief I felt emerges from our species’ capacity to wreak such havoc on our one and only habitat, especially since we’ve known about the impacts for at least decades, if not longer. Indigenous peoples around the globe have intimately witnessed the reality of human-caused ecological crisis and environmental change for centuries due to colonization . Western science generated early ideas of the greenhouse effect in the late 1800s and since then, the data has accumulated to inform our current understanding of climate change and the implications for our world . And while many people, communities, and governments are responding to this existential crisis — especially Indigenous nations and Black and brown communities on the frontlines of climate impacts — and calling for a transformative change in our economic systems, many others continue to extract deeper and more remote energy reserves to feed an insatiable desire for growth and satisfaction. How is it possible for people to perform such a feat of conscious self-destruction? And for those of us who want and are working to end extractive systems, but whose efforts are stymied by those systems’ self-preserving mechanisms, how are we able to continue living when we are unable to secure our own safety by protecting our habitat against destructive forces? In both cases, we are unable to complete the cycle of self-protection that is a fundamental part of our animal nature.
Disembodiment and Trauma
The only way for us to withstand this inability to secure our own safety is to numb ourselves to the physical and emotional experiences of performing and witnessing this violence against our planet, ourselves, and each other. In trauma theory, this is dissociation. We dissociate to leave the discomfort of cognitive dissonance when we participate in extractive economies while we know it causes harm. We dissociate to relieve the pain we feel when we see wildfires burning summer after summer. There are other responses we might have in addition to dissociation — fighting through protests and grassroots organizing, fleeing from information by avoiding news, or freezing by not knowing what to do and living in uncertainty and anxiety. I refer to this collection of strategies that take us out of our present-tense body experience as the phenomenon of disembodiment.
Disembodiment is not new to the human experience. In fact, dissociation and accompanying responses are a sophisticated technology that humans have been utilizing for a very long time to survive trauma. When we experience situations that are too much and occur too fast for us to handle, and we are not able to successfully resolve the crisis to re-secure our safety, dignity, and belonging, then we can get stuck in a state or “shape” of fight, flight, freeze, appease, or dissociate . When we do not have the privilege of time, space, energy, professional and personal support, and access to resources to process our trauma and get unstuck, and when we feel triggered or face new crises, we often find ourselves resorting to that shape for protection. That shape becomes well-worn like an old pair of slippers; it often feels comfortable because it’s familiar and it’s helped protect us in the past. But that shape overrides our needs and desires. While it serves a purpose, getting stuck in it prevents us from living the full range of the emotions and fulfillment the human experience has to offer.
The dominant culture and economy we live within reinforce the practice of disembodiment. For example, when our work demands more labor with less time to recover, we use strategies like coffee and binge watching TV so we don’t feel the exhaustion and discontent. Ableism, white body supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression all create conditions that activate our protective shapes, and offer few to no other options than to leave our felt-sense experience of the present moment. Living amidst these systems, we are collectively trained to practice disembodiment in our daily lives.
The Texture of Climate Trauma
In the context of climate collapse, trauma is multifaceted. We experience primary trauma from the existential threat of our species’ only habitat being lost, historical trauma from centuries of our increasing separation from nature, and secondary trauma from witnessing the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems.
Primary Trauma: Existential threat of our species
Much of the current discourse about primary climate trauma is focused on the experience of surviving a severe weather event or disaster related to the climate crisis, like extreme heat waves, wildfires, and severe flooding. However, primary climate trauma encompasses much more than post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from environmental catastrophe. As Zhiwa Woodbury argues, “Such a conflation of Climate Trauma with weather enables the kind of marginalization of the crisis that supports repression of any difficult feelings it engenders, along with suppression of any appropriate responses” . Woodbury defines a new taxonomy of climate trauma, noting that this “is a crisis of our relationship with nature that, naturally, affects us at all relational levels — interspecies, sociocultural, communal, occupational, and familial.”
The direct traumatic experience of climate collapse includes the daily experience of living with both a looming threat of catastrophe to come and the micro-moments of that threat in the present day. It is both hearing the news about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report of what 2030, 2050, and 2070 could look like and experiencing increasingly common brownouts during dry summer months to prevent wildfire. In both cases, it is the embodied accumulation of the lived experience of climate collapse that embeds trauma within us. As Michael Richardson states it: “To be affected by climate trauma is to find one’s own body attuned to an arriving crisis that is from the future yet simultaneously purely present” .
The trauma incurred from present-day experience of future climate threats has been characterized by E. Ann Kaplan as pre-traumatic stress syndrome (PreTSS), or pretrauma, which she describes as “living in fear of a future terrifying event” similar to Hurricane Katrina or other climate-induced catastrophe . Coupled with the experience of chronic imprints of future crisis in everyday life, this primary form of climate trauma is akin to the developmental trauma that occurs as a child develops “in the context of ongoing danger, maltreatment and disrupted caregiving systems” or multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), in that it is a highly complex experience of trauma that manifests in myriad behavioral and emotional ways that are not easily characterized or treated . If we are to heal climate trauma that has occurred and is occurring in present time, we must have a more nuanced understanding of primary trauma from climate collapse than is currently demonstrated in the dominant conversation.
Historical Trauma: Separation from nature
Underlying our primary trauma are the deep roots of historical trauma in humans’ relationship to nature. A slow and insidious process, our species has separated ourselves from the ecological world of which we are a part. This distancing has been dated back to the rise of Judeo-Christian belief systems, which position a single god as separate from nature and granted humans dominion over the Earth . Centuries of controlling nature ensued, driven by Euro-centric values, colonization, and capitalism. We created private property, fences, and border walls, imposing superficial divisions onto landscapes that know no bounds . We designed the “built environment” to distinguish the human world — namely urbanity — from the non-human “natural environment” . Even while many people may report believing they are a part of nature, they still understand something “natural” as something untouched by humans, revealing an underlying belief in the separation .
It turns out, however, that our sharp severance from nature cuts deeper. We’ve created a companion story, the narrative that is both evidence and self-fulfilling prophesy. Within the container of our isolation, we wove a story that we are in conflict with nature, that humans are inherently harmful to nature, that we cannot coexist in balance with Earth. This story generates shame of what we have done and who we are. It feeds our resignation to the hole we have dug for ourselves and all other beings, the destiny of end that we have created for ourselves. It permits us to look away, to accept, to choose the same path again and again.
Inupiat researcher Demarus Tevuk describes this belief system as a cynical worldview that is held in dominant society, particularly in the U.S., and contrasts it against a sustainable worldview that is common to Indigenous cultures . The story of cynicism leads us to the conclusion that we must exclude ourselves from nature in order to protect nature. Thus it becomes a circular argument that we are separate from nature because we destroy nature so we must separate from nature so we don’t destroy nature. The concept of “wilderness” was bred from this logic, though that too is an illusion because nothing is truly void of human touch . Nothing can be separate from humans because humans cannot be separate from Earth. This is the lesson of interconnectivity that the climate crisis teaches us so clearly.
The generations who have had to suppress their need for closeness with kin — animals, plants, and landscapes — have seeded down to children and children’s children. It is a coldness that now rests in the bones of millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha, the yearning that wells up periodically in “back to land” movements. This historical trauma is the denial of what our bodies know to be true — that I am you, we are us. Like the Wood-Wide Web of forests where mycelia connect the trees and plants into an interspecies organism, we are intimately connected to other beings with whom we share this planet . We ourselves are interspecies ecosystems, with trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorganisms on and in the human body . We feel our interdependence and the inherent desire to cooperate in relationships of mutuality . Yet the systems we’ve constructed gaslight us and impose barriers to living in alignment with interdependence — barriers that are insurmountable as an individual unless you abandon all semblance of connection to society as we know it.
This is the trauma that gets relived over and over again. The innate need that never gets met. And what may be even more traumatizing is our collective forgetting of this need. “The absence of memory is partly what is so traumatically affecting,” Richardson argues . Patriarchal and racialized capitalism and colonialism have inscribed and reinscribed the erasure of our intimacy with other living and nonliving beings as a member of the natural world. Healing the wound of climate collapse must include remembering and re-membering, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs reminds us, the history and trauma that has contributed to the future unraveling .
Secondary Trauma: Harming and witnessing harm
We also experience secondary trauma of inflicting and witnessing harm on other species, landscapes, and beings. The more we’ve come to know through climate science about the extent of impacts from our actions, the more we’ve experienced this secondary trauma. And it’s been a feedback loop — much like the warming that occurs at the planetary scale — because the more severe the climate crisis becomes, the greater the harm, the more egregious the act to continue the status quo, the more secondary trauma we experience.
To continue living amidst this violence, we numb. We dissociate from what our bodies tell us is self-harming and immoral. We leave ourselves because if we were to stay in the truth of what we witness, we would be at risk of collapsing from the flood of grief, pain, sorrow, and terror, and we could not possibly take care of our basic needs and that of our family. How else are we able to see the seabirds dying from starvation not because their bellies weren’t full, but because they were full of plastics instead of nutrients, and still continue participating in the single-use plastic industry and not hold a sit-in in front of every plastic manufacturer and not write to policymakers with the passion that we bring to our child’s school board? How else do we hear and read and watch the melting glaciers and burning forests and raging seas and in the next moment plan our vacation to unleash 12,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for 7 days in the suns of Bali? Even for those of us who wish to create regenerative systems and build circular economies, we too must evacuate the body and take refuge in the mind to not feel the rage boil our skin.
This is where our story of separation becomes strategy. We have practiced separating ourselves from nature for hundreds of years. We are what we practice the most, as Francisca Porchas Coronado said . So tuning out of nature’s hurt enables us to keep going. Living amidst systems and institutions that ravage our bodies as much as our landscapes, how do we exist? Dissociation is a survival strategy. It’s technology. It helps us persist when conditions beyond our control threaten our survival, including racialized capitalism, patriarchy, and white body supremacy . But when we rest in disembodiment, we impede our healing. When we don’t metabolize threat, we get stuck. When we continue overriding our body’s alarm system, we reinforce the story of cynicism and give power to the mantras of productivity, individualism, dominance, and unfettered growth. When we don’t acknowledge our agency in systems change, we abandon ourselves.
To get unstuck is to return to ourselves. Healing from and through secondary climate trauma requires coming back into our bodies, which will demand enormous effort and courage, but promises more choicefulness in how we exist.
The Nature of Wounding
It must be said that trauma is not easily characterized and it’s not homogeneous. The particular manifestation of climate trauma in each individual is going to look different based on the context of their lives, their particular constitution, where they live, how their identities intersect, and myriad other factors. What I’m describing here as climate trauma may not resonate with everyone, and it may be called by many other names. There can be infinite layers of nuance yet uncovered in my arguments, and this article can be an initial step toward uncovering those layers. All of these things can be true. I reiterate my intentions with this series: to prompt dialogue, further study, and ultimately contribute to a deeper, trauma-informed understanding of climate change and accompanying investment in and attention toward healing.
Upcoming in the Series Embodying the Climate Crisis
In subsequent parts of this series, I’ll explore the symptoms of climate trauma as they show up, including a deep dive into what’s commonly called eco-anxiety and eco-grief. I’ll make an argument for understanding climate collapse as a symptom of planetary trauma, and discuss pathways toward transformative healing. Sign up for updates here.
 See the work of Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, discussed in this article: https://psmag.com/ideas/indigenous-knowledge-has-been-warning-us-about-climate-change-for-centuries
 Excerpt from The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart (Harvard University Press, 2008). https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/discovery-of-global-warming/
 This is a coarse description of trauma. There are plenty of incredible resources to learn more about the nervous system and trauma, including: Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands, Staci Haines Politics and Trauma, and Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score.
 Woodbury, Zhiwa, “Climate Trauma: Toward a New Taxonomy of Trauma,” Ecopsychology (2019) 11(1:1–8), http://doi.org/10.1089/eco.2018.0021.
 Richardson, Micheal, “Climate Trauma, or the Affects of the Catastrophe to Come,” Environmental Humanities (2018) 10 (1): 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1215/22011919-4385444.
 Kaplan, E. Ann, Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction, Rutgers University Press (2015).
 van der Kolk, Bessel, The Body Keeps the Score, Penguin Books (2014).
 Alberro, Heather, “Humanity and nature are not separate — we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis,” The Conversation (2019). https://theconversation.com/humanity-and-nature-are-not-separate-we-must-see-them-as-one-to-fix-the-climate-crisis-122110.
 See William Cronon’s Changes in the Land for a sharp analysis of changes in New England’s landscape after colonization and the application of private property. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781429928281.
 Schultz, P. Wesley, “Inclusion with Nature: The Psychology Of Human-Nature Relations,” In: Schmuck P., Schultz W.P. (eds) Psychology of Sustainable Development, Springer, Boston, MA. (2002) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-0995-0_4.
 Vining, Joanne, Melinda S. Merrick, and Emily A. Price, “The Distinction between Humans and Nature: Human Perceptions of Connectedness to Nature and Elements of the Natural and Unnatural,” Human Ecology Review (2008) 15(1): 1–11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24707479.
 Tevuk, Demarus, “Defining Sustainability from the Indigenous Perspective,” Presentation delivered to Sustainable Resource Committee (2020). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRrOD4tQyY0.
 Cronon, William, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” In: Cronon, William (ed), Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69–90.
 Jabr, Ferris, “The Social Life of Forests,” The New York Times Magazine (2020). https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-communication-mycorrhiza.html.
 Gallagher, James, “More than half your body is not human,” BBC News (2018). https://www.bbc.com/news/health-43674270.
 See Krista Tippet’s interview with Agustín Fuentes, “This Species Moment,” On Being podcast (2020), https://onbeing.org/programs/agustin-fuentes-this-species-moment/.
 Richardson (2018).
 See Prentis Hemphill’s interview with Alexis Pauline Gumbs on the Finding Our Way podcast (2020), https://www.stitcher.com/show/finding-our-way/episode/ep-7-remembering-with-alexis-pauline-gumbs-78681459.
 Francisca Porchas Coronado in “Reaching For Each Other,” CTZN podcast (2020), https://www.ctznwell.org/ctznpodcast/reaching-for-each-other/
 See Resmaa Menakem’s work in My Grandmother’s Hands, Central Recovery Press (2017).