The Psychology That Unlocks Climate Action

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Education is a key part of taking climate action, yet according to psychologists, the way the majority of climate news is written actually numbs us into inaction. So how do we maintain awareness in a way that inspires us to act? 

Words by Ella Liascos

We’ve all been there. Doom scrolling or reading one article after another before we feel our nervous system fray and spiral into hopeless apathy. Psychology tells us this isn’t happening solely because the topic itself is anxiety inducing, but because of the way educators, scientists and the media talk about it. This leads to question; how do we discuss climate without alarming ourselves into a state of paralysis? The work of psychologist Dr. Renee Lertzman explores just this. She offers some very helpful concepts and tools we can all utilise to stay grounded and resilient as we work towards creating the world we want to live in. 

Bill Peters/The Denver PostBill Peters/The Denver Post

Lertzman’s first two concepts are the ‘Window of Tolerance’ and the ‘Double Bind.’ They serve to help us recognise our psychological patterns and signals, so we know when it’s time to turn inward and process feelings that are harder to sit with. The Window of Tolerance, coined by psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, describes our stress threshold that, if surpassed, leads us to unhealthy coping mechanisms and causes us to disconnect from ourselves and others. It can happen with a quick glance of a scary headline, sending our anxiety past our window of tolerance. “With something like climate change,” Lertzman says, “every new scientific report, documentary, connecting the dots between what we’re doing and the impact it’s having, can collectively be pushing us outside of our window of tolerance. At this point, Lertzman says we either shut down (hypoarousal) , or become hardened and hyperactive (hyperarousal). It can look like depression and numbing, or denial and anger. In turn, we lose our ability to remain resilient and adaptive.  

“To counter this seeming apathy, environmentalists continue to try and wake people up using the same content that causes them to numb in the first place.”

‘The Double Bind’ theory describes the sense that, “we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” It happens when we receive conflicting messages that lead to inner conflict. Phrases like, “use your keep cup to save the planet!” Versus, “there’ll be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.” It’s the feeling that even if we make great sacrifices for the environment, say, by travelling less or giving up meat, it will be insignificant compared to the grand scale of the problem. 

Arvada High School students (Rocky Mountain News Photographs, Box 364, FF "Environment - Earth Day")

According to Lertzman, when we experience both these theories in reality, we fall into a ‘freeze’ state that looks a lot like apathy — even if we care a lot about the problem. The director of 2040, Damon Gameau, describes his own experience of this in an interview with environmentalist Paul Hawken. “I was reading a newspaper and came across an article about another bleaching event on our Great Barrier Reef,” he says. “I probably read two sentences of that article and then turned the page and started reading a different article. I actually caught myself and thought ‘I’ve just had a daughter,’ she was six months old. I care deeply about her future and this planet. Yet I couldn’t read more than two or three sentences of that article. I felt hopeless, disengaged, overwhelmed and quite useless in terms of what I could contribute to this huge reef bleaching event.”

“Anxiety is a sign that our body is working as it should. It’s a useful messenger, always pointing to what needs attention.”

In neuroscience, this is called the ‘amygdala hijack’, better known as the ‘fight, flight, freeze response.’ Fight the problem, take flight from it, or freeze and play dead. When the amygdala is firing, our prefrontal cortex, or the part of our brain responsible for rationality and creative problem solving taps out. To counter this seeming apathy, environmentalists continue to try and wake people up using the same content that causes them to numb in the first place. Creating awareness about the environment, “is not inherently bad” Lertzman says, “because we need solutions and we need to face the facts. But inadvertently, this can backfire and lead to more numbing and inaction, which is very perplexing for a lot of people.” 

Markus Spiske

To counter the amygdala hijack, Lerzman suggests getting to know our own nervous system and learning to process emotions so they don’t manifest into a freeze response. Anxiety is a sign that our body is working as it should. It’s a useful messenger, always pointing to what needs attention. When ignored however, it can get out of hand. It’s therefore healthier to turn toward it and listen. To process our anxieties and emotions and align our actions accordingly. Lurtzman suggests a few ways we can process our fears in the face of such an existential threat, so that we can be as balanced and effective as possible. 

“Emotional attunement orients us into a healthier mindset, which also allows us to attune socially — an especially important skill for environmental leaders to learn.”

Attunement

The first solution Lertzman poses is a concept called ‘Attunement,’ a practice that helps us avoid emotionally shutting down when experiencing climate anxiety. She describes it as a process of going inwards to observe and listen to our emotions. To ‘attune’ ourselves to them. Tuning in helps us recognise what our window of tolerance is, so we can make sure not to go beyond it by reading too much news, for example. “When we are more in tune with our window of tolerance,” says Lertzman, “we are so much more capable of solving problems, being creative, being adaptive, being flexible, being our brilliant selves.” Attunement is easier said than done, she notes, because when the stakes are high, let me tell you, it’s very hard to want to attune with anything, when we’re facing such urgent threats.” 

Markus Spiske
Markus Spiske

The RAIN of compassion

Cultivating compassion for ourselves is what allows us to attune to difficult emotions. We can practise attunement by compassionately talking to and reassuring ourselves, in the same way we’d reassure a child or a friend. This approach is reinforced by the work of Tara Brach, a world renowned psychologist and meditation teacher who developed a practice of radical compassion called RAIN. It stands for Recognise, Allow, Investigate and Nurture. ‘Recognise’ involves taking an objective stance from which to observe our emotional landscape, as if looking to the sky to see what the weather is doing. We then ‘Allow’ that emotion to be as it is, without trying to change or resist it. This helps that scared part of us to feel seen and heard. From there, we can ‘Investigate’ with interest and care — asking questions Brach suggests like — what does this venerable place want from me? What am I believing? What does it most need? With that information on hand, she then suggests we ‘Nurture’ those parts of ourselves with compassion, by giving them what they need. That might look like reassurance, deep breaths, or taking positive action. This kind of emotional attunement orients us into a healthier mindset, which also allows us to attune socially — an especially important skill for environmental leaders to learn. 

“Human connection is a key part of cultivating a healthy body and mind. It releases the hormone oxytocin in the brain, which lowers blood pressure and stress hormones. From this place of feeling connected to ourselves and others, we’re better equipped to springboard into action.”

Leading with Attunement

Leading with attunement does not look like crafting doomsday headlines, or sugar coating it with only hopeful ones. In the same way we attune to ourselves, leading with attunement looks like meeting people exactly where they are; a more nuanced place involving messy emotions that range from powerlessness and anger to desensitisation. “As leaders and influencers,” Lertzman says it’s important to show up as human, “as real, saying “You know what? I’m really scared. I don’t know what all the answers are. But here we are and we’re all needed. And we’re in this together. And we can do this.” By meeting people where they are, she says, we are helping them to feel understood and connected. 

“It’s important that environmental educators start to spread emotionally attuned messages that speak to the true context of our collective inner worlds.”

Human connection is a key part of cultivating a healthy body and mind. It releases the hormone oxytocin in the brain, which lowers blood pressure and stress hormones. From this place of feeling connected to ourselves and others, we’re better equipped to springboard into action. A real world example of what leading with attunement looks like, is Damon Gameau’s recent short film Regenerate Australia. It presents a view of what Australia could look like in 2030 if we roll up our sleeves and take action. He tells IF Magazine “I think a lot of people right now don’t understand there is an alternative option because all they’ve heard is the things they have to sacrifice and let go of, but they don’t know the gains that could come from giving up those things.” By presenting the problem alongside the potential gains, Gameau shows the whole picture, the devastation and loss against the potential for regeneration. Up until now, this has looked like record floods and fires, but in the future, it could also look like new jobs in environmental industries and a better quality of life and health, with organic gardens strewn across formerly grey concrete cities. 

Tiff NG

Our emotions surrounding the climate won’t overwhelm us, but suppressing them will. Despite what’s going on in the world and the resulting stress it creates, it is possible to cultivate a sense of safety within our own bodies — allowing us to creatively problem solve with clarity. Knowing that alarming language leads people to psychologically shut down and ignore the problem, it’s important that environmental educators start to spread emotionally attuned messages that speak to the true context of our collective inner worlds. From there, we are able to feel emotionally open enough to actually engage in the solutions and the action required to regenerate our planet.

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Ella Liascos

Ella Liascos is an Australian writer based in Byron Bay, exploring how we can regenerate our relationship to ourselves and the planet.

2022-09-09T01:09:13+00:00Categories: Conservation|Tags: , , |