With anxiety on the rise psychologists enter the climate change field

Climate change has not only become an integral part of politics and news reporting, but also a topic of academic research. With anxiety rising it should not come as a surprise that it is a matter of concern for psychologists. In the Nordic countries there are already several climate psychology centres, but their focus is not exclusively on the well-being of individuals.

© Photo: Hello-i-m-nik/Unsplash
© Photo: Hello-i-m-nik/Unsplash

Recently the Swedish journalist Kristofer Ahlström attracted nation-wide interest in Sweden when he wrote an article in Dagens Nyheter admitting that he suffered from climate anxiety.  He explained his feelings after a summer of all-consuming news about floods in central Europe, forest fires and record-breaking heatwaves in North America, culminating in a very discouraging IPCC climate report.

© Kali Andersson
© Kali Andersson

“In the back of my mind, I searched for the tools I had discovered in therapy. For about six months, I have met a psychologist to tackle my climate anxiety,” Ahlström wrote. “If I’m honest, the results have been limited. I’m still angry, the second phase of mourning out of five. I can hardly think about the climate, let alone discuss it without my brain freezing like a cramping muscle.”

Climate psychology has not become a special branch of psychology, but it uses its methods and know-how. Many Swedish psychologists clearly see a role for themselves in the current debate about climate change.

Kali Andersson is a partner at one of the two Swedish Climate Psychology centres currently operating. Anderson, who is the author of a book entitled Climate Psychology (Klimatpsykologi), admits that she herself suffered from climate anxiety.

She says that sometimes she discusses with patients if the issue is about climate anxiety, uneasiness, or anger.

“Being angry is a good feeling. When you are anxious, however, you are inactive and not constructive. Then it is not your personal problem anymore but a problem for the planet,” she told UNRIC in an interview.

According to the climate psychologists, being anxious about the climate is a natural reaction since it is a real threat that we are facing. Our minds and bodies have a developed system that warns of danger and a reaction is therefore good and natural.

For some, climate anxiety can help them to react, while others are not able to.

“Some people become overwhelmed and are stuck in anxiety,” explains Frida Hylander, Anderson’s partner at the Climate Psychology Centre.

“If one already has a tendency towards anxiety or other psychological disorders it can become difficult to handle information on the climate crises. Then there might be a need of psychological help.”

Kari Andersson and Kristoffer Ahlström participated in a recent podcast discussion organised by Omvarlden, a Swedish global news website. Ahlström said the overwhelming response to his article caught him by surprise. Many asked what they could do to fight climate change.

Andersson thinks that this is positive when the anger or anguish people feel is converted into action. And this is where her expertise can benefit the organisations and companies she works with.

Although her centre still receives some individuals, increasingly their focus is on advising organisations and companies.

“We try to use psychology to help change society when it comes to climate change, Andersson told UNRIC.

“We need to use psychology, our knowledge about how people actually think and motivate themselves and how systems work. We apply this to organizations that are already working with these issues. What we are doing is helping these organizations to become more effective and work using psychological principles. Climate change and other ecological issues are so depressing or existential, it is difficult for most people to take in the information, digest it and start acting,” she explained.

This is where the climate psychologists can make a difference, analysing how information reaches people in the most effective way and encourage analysis on the impact of behaviour. She gives a concrete example.

“Some organisations might want to encourage people to use public transport. But will an information campaign work? Do people know about it already? Are there factors other than lack of knowledge that are at work? We ask why people have not chosen to take the bus, and then we encourage our clients to ask themselves if perhaps more cycle lanes, might be more effective in the long run.” Andersson explains.

In the broader context of climate change, the information is there. Kristoffer Ahlström says that the reactions to the recent comprehensive report of the IPCC should have pushed policy makers to take radical actions.

“I cannot really imagine what else is needed to spark a real reaction. But the risk is that we will experience it,” he wrote in his article in Dagens Nyheter.

Noaa Led /Usplash
© Noaa Led /Usplash

In the northern hemisphere, the weather has long been a favourite topic of conversation. Hitherto, it has been considered non-controversial and a relatively apolitical topic. That was, however, until recently. Now the weather has become political too. In Sweden there is even discussion on whether it is appropriate for weather presenters to be so happy when the climate is so gloomy.

And Ahlström admits that while he feels anxious about the climate, he envies those who don´t care.

“Sometimes, thinking about the climate sparks another unflattering feeling: envy. I envy those who can see images of Central Europe’s catastrophic floods and read reports about the possible collapse of the Gulf Stream, and yet feel that this is peripheral.” I envy those who seem to have passed through all the stages of sorrow and gone straight to the stage of acceptance.

COP26 logo
COP26 logo

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and the next summit meeting on the climate is around the corner. COP26, the UN Climate Conference, kicks off in Glasgow in November.

For more information on the UN Climate Conference, COP26: https://ukcop26.org

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