Post-Petroleum Stress Disorder: mental health and climate change

While not many of us actually require a clinical diagnosis of anxiety, it’s no secret that mental health and climate change are inextricably linked. As we reckon with our personal “End of Suburbia moment”, we need to learn how to deal with the natural reactions that come with it.

How mental health and climate change are linked

On a primal level, we all know this. When you finally recognized the true extent of our problem – or continue to re-realize – you probably experienced many of the “symptoms” I’ll talk through below. Your reactions may range anywhere from “gee this is scary” to actually requiring a therapist, but the truth is facing catastrophe head-on takes a toll.

Here are just a few examples and statistics pulled from recent news:

High-risk communities at further risk

The Canadian Inuit – in a trend that has been felt by indigenous populations worldwide as they’ve been denied their native land and practices – already experience incredibly high rates of suicide. A 2012 study showed that “Between 1999 and 2003, the rates in Inuit regions averaged 135 per 100 000, more than 10 times higher than the general Canadian rates. Although suicide was not unknown in Inuit culture, evidence suggests this rate has increased severalfold during the last decades.”

Many fear that number will accelerate as climate change prolongs the periods in which suicides typically occur:

The Inuit’s lands, though, are warming twice as fast as the global average, imperiling the ice they rely on to travel. In the fall, hunters tend to get stuck in the community, because ice hasn’t fully formed up—and again, in the spring, when things are melting. Climate change is making these ice transition periods even longer.

“During those times historically, there has been some increases in suicide or suicide attempts or ideation in the communities,” says Ashlee Cunsolo, a health geographer who has studied the region. “There is a lot of concern among the mental health practitioners. What does that mean if this time is lengthened from two weeks to eight weeks?”

Additionally, a major study found that for every degree Celsius the average monthly temperature rises, “suicide rates rise 0.7% in US counties and 2.1% in Mexican municipalities for a 1 °C increase in monthly average temperature.” They also found that mental well-being deteriorates during warmer periods by doing an analysis of depressive language in over 600 million social media posts. They conclude that “unmitigated climate change (RCP8.5) could result in a combined 9–40 thousand additional suicides (95% confidence interval) across the United States and Mexico by 2050”.

Climate Change and Mental Health

This infographic by ecoAmerica does a great job of showing how health and climate change are closely linked.

PTSD and climate catastrophes

While the initial reckoning people feel when faced with our climate reality is rarely diagnosable as PTSD, it’s very clear that climate catastrophes do create that link.

After the Gulf oil spill, a study found enough initial evidence to link the spill to higher levels of PTSD among youth in the area. 1 in 6 people affected by Hurricane Katrina met the criteria for PTSD. Waves upon waves of climate refugees must struggle with the mental anguish of being displaced as well as dealing with the often dangerous conditions they find themselves in as they try to find a new home. I could go on and on.

If you’d like to read an in-depth look at the link between long-term climate grief and mental health, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance by the APA and several eco-orgs is a great place to find out more.

 

The 8 signs of post-petroleum stress disorder

Post-Petroleum Stress Disorder_ mental health and climate change - fear - PollyBarks.com

Post-petroleum stress disorder (n.): the process of becoming aware we cannot continue the same systems because our oil reserves are running out. It may also be refered to as the “End of Suburbia moment”, and how the awareness of needing to radically change the world affects people.

The term – which may be less controversially titled “eco-anxiety” – comes from The Transition Handbook, a beautiful guide for bringing communities into a post-petroleum world joyfully.

Is “post-petroleum stress disorder” linked to a real mental health issue? For most people, probably not. For some, maybe. No matter where you fall on the just worried to clinically diagnosed scale, the idea is similar: reckoning with the inevitable demise of life as we know it is terrifying.

We can choose to face that with intense fear and despair or using all the tools in our medical, mental, and activist toolboxes.

Realistically, it’s probably a little of both.

Clammy palms or nausea and mild palpitations

What it looks like: “For many people the first manifestation of this disorder is physical discomfort” – we all know it, right? The physical feeling of fear when we’re forced to confront something uncomfortable? This is because our sweat glands are activated by something called a sympathetic fiber – and when strong emotions are activated, so is your nervous system.

What you can do: When all the things you need to do feel too overwhelming, consider tackling this like a low-grade panic attack. Try some deep breathing exercises, test out anti-stress apps like Happify, find an object to focus all of your energy on, or whatever other strategies work for you.

A sense of bewilderment and unreality

What it looks like: The ‘dark emptiness of the soul’ that happens when we recognize what reality really is. “Climate change put(s) a mirror up to our lives and the society around us, enabling us to see that what we had seen as being permanent and real is in fact a fragile illusion.” Once we understand the truth of our relationship with oil, we lose all sense of what reality is.

What you can do: Recognize and honor your feelings. Like anything tragic, finding out the true scope of our climate crisis can put us into a mourning period. Allow yourself to grieve; but then transform that grief into productive individual actions. Utilize nature-based self-care practices like gardening, grounding, or forest bathing to forge a connection to nature in the now.

Post-Petroleum Stress Disorder_ mental health and climate change - stress - PollyBarks.com

An irrational grasping at unfeasible solutions

What it looks like: “there is a confident belief that there is a silver bullet out there that will enable business-as-usual to continue uninterrupted, steadily growing our economies ad infinitum.” There’s an answer out there that will let us continue our unsustainable habits without ever needing to feel bad… right?

What you can do: Begin educating yourself about the indigenous wisdom that has existed for ages. By recognizing a post-petroleum world as something that can ultimately be beautiful and joyful, it’s much easier to say goodbye to the current system which – frankly – if you’re not one of the 1%, isn’t doing much for you anyway. I recommend Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future edited by Melissa K. Nelson, and Trust in the Land: New Directions in Tribal Conservation by Beth Rose Middleton Manning.

Fear

What it looks like: “One could argue that if you don’t find it (the climate crisis) scary, you haven’t really got it. For some, that fear can be paralysing, and for others it can trigger a shut-off mechanism.” Talking about the entire world shifting is terrifying. There’s no way around it.

What you can do: Chances are if you struggle with eco-grief or anxiety you spend a lot of time scrolling through social media, news reports, etc. learning (and worrying) more. Take time off and get physical in some way. Stretching, yoga, taking walks, volunteering for a physical job… they’re all ways we deal with traditional anxiety and can work well to alleviate immediate anxiety.

Plus… as The Transition Handbook notes, “It is important that we don’t just dump potentially scary information on people, but rather we need to allow an exchange of information and room for people to digest what they have been told.” When discussing the climate crisis, be sure to highlight what positive implications there are in responding appropriately: a return to greater community, a reduced focus on pointless work, fresh local produce, etc.

Outbreaks of nihilism and/or survivalism

What it looks like: Nihilism: “Peak oil can affirm their long-held belief that people are inherently selfish anyway and what is the point – we’ve all had it” – me. Survivalism: “rather than thinking it is not worth doing anything, it assumes that one should prioritise self and loved ones above all else, that one should design for one’s own survival; that a ‘head for the hills’ response is a valid one.”

What you can do: If you tend towards nihilism… convert worry and pessimism into action items. Focus on what you can control, mater that, and then move onto the next issue. Ideas could include:

 If you tend towards survivalism… rather than continuing to prioritize only your success (AKA perpetuating the same systems we know don’t work), recognize that joyful survival can only be had in groups. Spend an afternoon volunteering with a local charitable organization, buy food or supplies for a community member in need, or host a workshop. Basically, recognize that a future holed up in a bunker in the middle of nowhere may be survival – but it’s not living.

Post-Petroleum Stress Disorder_ mental health and climate change - nihilism - PollyBarks.com

Denial

What it looks like: “The internet is full of half-truths and misunderstandings for those who wish to construct such denial mechanisms.” Whether they believe climate change is an idea hatched by the New World Order to control the sheeple or they choose to believe the one person with a science background who denies scientific fact, we all know deniers. It may even be the times you force it out of your mind to try to enjoy “real life” for a while.

What you can do: Let’s be realistic: we can’t worry about this stuff all the time. “It becomes a problem when it closes us to the realities of the issue, and inhibits our ability to respond. Denial is a natural response, but we need to remain vigilant to it.” Recognize the truth but don’t let it bog you down. Be proactive about the climate crisis – learn a new zero waste skill or start a local zero waste group rather than pretending the problem isn’t there.

Exuberant optimism

What it looks like: No matter how much we mobilize and act, divesting our economy and ourselves from the oil industry will be a long, hard slog. As The Handbook says, “A failure to adequately prepare would be disastrous. Responding to peak oil with exuberant optimism needs to be balanced with an appreciation of the massive challenge it presents.”

What you can do: Get involved with a local or national organization doing the real work to organize around climate change. They will tell you the big challenges, but won’t leave you feeling listless and unprepared since they can provide you with a long list of actions to take. Organizations to look into include Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, the New Economy Coalition, and so much more! The Climate Mobilization is also a great resource that was founded by a psychologist!

The “I always told you so” syndrome

What it looks like: Perhaps the most natural reaction of all, even though crowing that we were right may mean “we neglect to really analyse the strengths and weaknesses of our proposed solutions in the context of diminishing net energy. We need to really think through the implications – in a low-energy context – of our proposals, and not remain too attached to our long-cherished beliefs and ideas.”

What you can do: Get over your hubris. It doesn’t really matter if you were right or not – what matters is that we’re collectively working towards the goals that make the most sense.

Post-Petroleum Stress Disorder_ mental health and climate change - PollyBarks.com

Final thoughts and resources

No matter how your concern with the climate crisis manifests itself, it’s important to tackle them in two (or three) steps:

  1. Acknowledge your feelings.
  2. Don’t get bogged down by feelings – find a tangible action item to keep you motivated and not floundering.
  3. (Optional) Get some help if you can’t tackle those feelings alone.

And while I’d never give anything close to medical advice, here are a few stepping stones for those looking for more serious help:

  • Search “therapist + climate change” and see what you find. Check into news articles citing therapists talking about eco-anxiety as a jumping-off point for people who may understand your concerns. Chances are many practices will not specifically mention climate in their practice, so this is a hunt. The International Community for Ecopsychology has a limited but international list of people working in ecopsychology. 
  • Use Psychology Today’s great list of therapists to help get you started on a local search for help.
Post-Petroleum Stress Disorder: mental health and climate change - PollyBarks.com