The Trauma of Our Swiftly Changing Climate

by Vanessa H. Roddenberry, Ph.D., HSP-P

Climate-Related Mental Health Problems Are Increasing

Have you spent time worrying about the environment? Do fears of how climate change will affect you, your children, your loved ones, or plant and animal life keep you up at night? At this point, these thoughts have likely crystalized into a form of chronic stress and a lingering note of discord.

A recent report from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica illustrates the impact of climate change on mental health and the importance of including psychological care in response to what is now a part of every day life.

Report findings indicate that: “Over three-quarters of Americans report that they are concerned about climate change, and about 25% say they are “alarmed,” nearly double the percentage who reported feeling alarm in 2017, according to the latest report.”

climate change anxiety and trauma

Moreover, the APA notes that “the most immediate effects on mental health can be seen in the aftermath of increasing disaster events fueled by climate change, such as hurricanes, wildfires and floods. These effects can include trauma and shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, feelings of abandonment, and anxiety and depression that can lead to suicidal ideation and risky behavior. At the community level, these disasters can strain social relationships, reduce social cohesion and increase interpersonal violence and child abuse.”

Climate Stress is Traumatic

What is abundantly clear is that the experience of being alive in the context of a rapidly changing environment and coping with the effects of those changes is emotionally traumatic and, at times physically traumatic. Now more than ever it is important to recognize the ubiquitous nature of trauma in human experience and, as such, the necessity of working with trauma-informed therapists.

Historically, surviving a natural disaster or climate-related threat such as extreme heat waves would result in social acceptance of the event as traumatic, and thus the survivor’s posttraumatic symptomatology (if any) would be deemed “rational” and understandable. However, trauma is cognitively based. The way you think about the world dictates how easily – or not – you’re able to adjust to changes and discrepancies in your worldview. For this reason, trauma is far more nuanced than is often captured by general cultural conceptualizations of it as accidents or attacks. This is certainly trauma; more specifically, what we would call “crash-bang” trauma or “Big T” trauma. Yet, that is not the only form of trauma.

The fear and uncertainty you face daily when confronted with the implications of climate change is a different form of trauma. “Little t” trauma, encompasses events in which you may not have been directly injured or experienced threat of injury, but your world was nonetheless seriously impacted with stress and fear. Living in a world where you can witness climate change not just within your lifetime, but within the past decade renders a fears of one’s ability to safely live life as it is known perfectly understandable. This is the “threat” of climate change and it’s resulting activation of your nervous system sets your body to chronic stress mode, not dissimilar to what you would experience if facing any other implied threat to your person.

There is a growing movement of therapists who describe themselves as “climate aware”. The selling point when working with such a therapist would be validation in response to climate-related fears and anxieties rather than attempting to minimize the feeling or intimate that it is irrational. While this is a positive therapeutic approach, what trauma-informed therapists have long-known (and always done) is to consistently approach your thoughts as the product of your experience and acknowledged them as valid products of that journey. This is the difference between a non-trauma-informed therapist asking “what’s wrong with you?” vs. a trauma-informed therapist asking “what happened to you?”

It would be unrealistic to not be concerned and anxious about the impact of environmental problems on your individual health and that of your loved ones for generations to come. Your trauma is valid and you deserve to work with a psychologist who understands that.

climate related anxiety and trauma

What to Do About Climate-Related Anxiety and Trauma

One thing we do know for sure is that the climate crisis has been a long time in the making and steps to resolve it will be similarly long-term. Climate-related stress is here to stay for the foreseeable future. The good news is that you don’t have to suffer alone. A good trauma informed psychologist will be able to help you function in spite of this fear and will help you find meaningful ways to thrive. While the climate is changing, there are things you can do as an individual, and as part of society more broadly. The first step is getting your arms around the problem, acknowledging it’s presence and impact on you, then moving towards places where you can effect change, no matter how small.

You can’t control the planet, or your emotions in regard to planetary changes. You can control your response to that emotional strain. Get the help you deserve today.

Contact our doctoral-level, trauma-informed psychologists at Breyta Psychological Services to get started with therapy today.


Urgent need to address mental health effects of climate change, says report. Accessed on 11/4/21:

Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Speiser, M., & Hill, A. N. (2021). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Inequities, Responses. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica. Accessed on 11/9/21: