Climate change enters the therapy room


PORTLAND — It would hit Mrs. Alina Black in the snack aisle at Trader Joe’s, a wave of guilt and shame that would make her skin crawl.

Something as simple as nuts. They came wrapped in plastic, often in layers, which she imagined leaving her house and going to a landfill, where it would remain for her entire life and the lives of her children.

She wanted, really wanted, to make less mark on the Earth. But she’d also had a baby in diapers, a full-time job, and a five-year-old who wanted snacks. At the age of 37, these conflicting forces were slowly closing in on her, like a jawbone.

In the wee hours of the morning, after nursing the baby, she would slip down a rabbit hole, scrolling through news stories about droughts, fires, mass extinctions. Then she stared into the dark.

It was for this reason that about six months ago she searched for “climate anxiety” and found the name of Dr. Thomas J Doherty, a Portland psychologist who specializes in climate.

Ten years ago, Dr. Doherty and a colleague, Dr. Susan Clayton, professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio, published a paper proposing a new idea. They argued that climate change would have a powerful psychological effect – not just on the people who bear the brunt of it, but on the people who follow it through news and research. At the time, the notion was considered speculative.

This skepticism is fading. Eco-anxiety, a concept introduced by young activists, has entered common vocabulary. And professional organizations are racing to catch up, exploring approaches to treating anxiety that are both existential and, many would say, rational.

Although there is little empirical data on effective treatments, the field is growing rapidly. The Climate Psychology Alliance offers an online directory of climate-sensitive therapists; the Good Grief Network, a peer support network inspired by 12-step addiction programs, has spawned more than 50 groups; professional certification programs in climate psychology have begun to appear.

As for Dr. Doherty, so many people now come to him for this problem that he’s built an entire practice around them: an 18-year-old student who sometimes has panic attacks so bad she can’t get out of bed ; a 69-year-old glacial geologist who is sometimes overwhelmed with sadness as he watches his grandchildren; a man in his fifties who bursts out in frustration at his friends’ drinking choices, unable to tolerate their chatter about vacationing in Tuscany, Italy.

The emergence of this field has met with resistance, for various reasons. Therapists have long been trained to keep their own views out of their practices. And many mental health leaders argue that anxiety about climate change is clinically no different from anxiety caused by other societal threats, like terrorism or school shootings. Some climate activists, meanwhile, are wary of viewing climate anxiety as a dysfunctional thought — to be appeased or, worse, cured.

But Mrs. Black was not interested in theoretical arguments; she needed help right away.

“I feel like I’ve developed a lifestyle phobia,” she said.


Last fall, Ms. Black went online for her first meeting with Dr. Doherty, who sat, on video, in front of a large, shiny photograph of evergreen trees.

At 56, he’s one of the most visible authorities on climate in psychotherapy, and he hosts a podcast, “Climate Change and Happiness.” In his clinical practice, he goes beyond standard treatments for anxiety, like cognitive-behavioral therapy, to more obscure treatments, like existential therapy, designed to help people fight despair, and ecotherapy. , which explores the client’s relationship to the natural world.


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