Climate trauma overview
What is climate trauma?
The word “trauma” stems from the Greek word for physical wound. However, we understand that trauma causes both physical and emotional injury. The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology defines trauma as: “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning. Traumatic events include those caused by human behavior (e.g., rape, war, industrial accidents) as well as by nature (e.g., earthquakes) and often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place.”
Traumatic events and disruptions have always been part of everyday life. Yet, human-caused climate change is increasing the frequency and reach of traumatic events.
One example is that warming surface temperatures worldwide are leading to more droughts and more intense storms. Vulnerable nations, such as the Global South, Small Island Nations, and sub-Saharan Africa, are disproportionately affected; human mortality from floods, droughts, and storms in 2010-2020 was 15 times higher compared to countries with low vulnerability. Natural disasters, a form of acute trauma, can cause acute physical harm, as well as extreme emotional distress. Such traumatic events can lead to further trauma, including the loss of loved ones, home, and community, and exacerbate existing traumas like poverty. These can all contribute to ongoing post-traumatic symptoms, and in some individuals, post-traumatic disorders (defined below).
In addition to acute trauma responses to natural disasters, climate change is having an impact in more gradual, but equally devastating ways – chronic trauma. In some regions of the world, drought and flooding is leading to loss of agricultural resources, with subsequent forced migration, conflict, and violence due to resource scarcity. Sudan is an example of one of the first countries that the United Nations officially identified as experiencing war, state failure, forced migration, and famine due to climate change.
In addition to the direct traumatic impact of climate disasters, “the climate crisis does not just induce trauma under certain circumstances – it is a new form of trauma that pervades the circumstances of our life.” In considering climate change itself as trauma, we are recognizing that dissociation (not knowing about something in a fully conscious way) is a human response to extreme stress. This leads to states of mind in which we do not recognize danger. The failure to recognize danger is commonly described as denial. However, understanding denial of climate change as a dissociative “not knowing” offers an opportunity to increase conversation, education, and collaborative action on climate change.
How does traumatic stress impact mental health?
The response to traumatic events can cause reactions described as “fight, flight or freeze”. Following natural disasters, some individuals and communities adapt with resilience, while others go on to develop chronic symptoms such as post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Common post-traumatic symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, and increased use of alcohol or other drugs.
The human nervous system functions in equilibrium between the sympathetic system, which is activating, like when you’re running away in fear, and the parasympathetic system, which is relaxing, such as when you’re resting or digesting. (See books by Bessel van der Kolk, Peter A. Levine, and Stephen Porges for more information). While natural disasters often trigger acute stress reactions, the aftermath of these disasters, along with the anticipation of further risks, can cause such prolonged traumatic stress that the body experiences a collapse into fatigue. This can cause multiple long-term physical and psychological symptoms, which are chronic stress reactions.
Acute climate stressors include natural disasters, such as wildfires, floods, droughts, and hurricanes, leading to direct psychosocial consequences like injury, death, loss of home and community, separation from family. Chronic climate stressors result from slower moving climate changes, like rising sea levels, rising temperatures, the consequences of changing agricultural conditions, disruptions to food and water resources leading to increasing economic stress and conflict, weakened infrastructure, and increased risk of violence and aggression. While it is clearly established that acute, large-scale trauma can cause PTSD, clinicians increasingly appreciate that more subtle and chronic forms of trauma can also lead to post-traumatic symptoms.
Some of the symptoms of chronic traumatic stress are:
- Avoidance of places and situations that trigger memories
- Flashbacks and nightmares
- Depression, loss of energy, loss of interest in activities
- Chronic aches and pains
- Difficulty sleeping
- Social isolation
Increasingly, there is evidence of trauma-related symptoms in anticipation of climate changes, also known as “pre-traumatic stress”. Some individuals report chronic anxiety, difficulty sleeping, profound grief about the fate of non-human life on the planet, and preoccupation with thoughts about human extinction.
In children, it is too soon to know how this particular experience of chronic fear will impact emotional and physical development, but we know from other stressors that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have a negative effect on both medical and psychological health. In addition to natural disasters, chronic anticipation of disaster is itself an adverse childhood experience, as are increases in interpersonal violence within families and communities and loss of community support.
Natural disasters worsened by climate change are more devastating for communities with limited resources. These communities are already traumatized by the lifelong consequences of social injustice, including poverty, racism, and/or sexism; further acute trauma can have a devastating impact. For example, substandard infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods make residents more vulnerable to storm impacts. Those with low-income may not have the ability to evacuate, “since the act of evacuating requires resources – a car, money, someplace to go”. Individuals without the financial means to rebuild or relocate can suffer loss of shelter, hunger, and increased interpersonal violence. For some disasters, women are more likely than men to experience post-disaster violence. The experiences of conflict and forced displacement have substantial negative mental health impacts on refugees and asylum-seekers. In parts of the world where climate change is leading to forced migration, there is increased trauma due to violent conflicts, increased sex trafficking of women and girls, and labor trafficking of children. There is also a well-documented link between natural disasters and child abuse.
Consequences if we don’t reduce carbon emissions drastically
We tend to think about trauma as an action or event causing harm. Yet we can also understand neglect (an absence or inaction) as a form of trauma. Neglecting the climate crisis will ultimately result in devastating neglect of future generations of children. What’s more, industrialized nations have devaluated indigenous scientific literacy, leading to a loss of essential wisdom, and diminished caretaking of the Earth. This neglect of the value of Indigenous wisdom is a form of trauma, which will continue if unaddressed.
Climate change is linked to trauma in a number of ways:
- Natural disasters, such as wildfires, floods, droughts, and hurricanes cause loss of life, physical injuries, loss of homes and livelihood, separation of families and individuals within communities.
- A review on the psychological impacts of climate change found that loss of home and loss of income cause severe stress upon individuals and families, which in turn causes increased interpersonal violence, increased anxiety and depression in adults and children, increased substance abuse and dependency, and exacerbation of medical and psychological illnesses.
- Research indicates that rising temperatures (excessive heat) alone increases interpersonal violence, such as partner violence, as well as violent crime, such as assault, sexual offences, and homicide. Higher temperatures are also linked to more political violence, such as civil war.
- The experience of climate anxiety is prevalent. Of ten thousand young people (aged 16–25) surveyed in a 2021 study, seventy-five percent said that the future is frightening, and eighty-three percent thought that people have failed to take care of the planet.
- Climate change is forcing some populations to migrate, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and is increasing the risk of violent conflicts. Forced migration and displacement present stressors that can profoundly impact mental health, not limited to: exposure to traumatic events, loss of social ties, and discrimination.
What else might we need to know?
Climate change is increasing the conditions for violence, such as heat, resource scarcity, and natural disasters, but climate change in itself has been described as violence. Rebecca Solnit has written about climate change as industrial-scale violence: “[i]f you’re tremendously wealthy […] You can, say, build a sweatshop factory that will collapse in Bangladesh and kill more people than any hands-on mass murderer ever did, you can calculate risk and benefit about putting poisons or unsafe machines into the world, as manufacturers do every day.”
Trauma is also resulting from erosion of our sense of safety, our damaged relationship to nature, and the moral injury of being witness to, and in some ways being part of, exploitation of nature.
How can we address climate trauma?
Addressing dissociation: One consequence of trauma is a post-traumatic dissociation that leads to a kind of “not knowing” what is happening. We can address this “not knowing” through teaching and conversation. Like other social justice issues, individuals need to “know” how they are being treated in order to demand a change in that treatment. Noticing and talking about what we see happening to the environment and to the quality of our own lives can lead people to become more engaged with the problems and empowered to speak out. For example, it can lead people to learn more about the decisions being made by corporations and governments. In democratic nations, this increased awareness can help people appreciate the importance of voting for climate-conscious candidates.
Building resilience: The risk of developing both acute PTSD, as well as chronic symptoms, is related to both individual resilience, as well as connection to one’s community. Resilience is not actually “bouncing back” from injury or adversity, but the ability to grow and adapt in new ways to a changing world. Resilience is influenced by both inborn traits and learned adaptations. One of the most important factors in building resilience in children is a stable, supportive caregiver(s), since children will model their adaptation by what they see and experience on a daily basis. So, the stresses of environmental changes upon the lives of caregivers will impact their ability to model resilience for children. However, educators and mental health professionals are beginning to use new and forgotten tools to help children and adults cope with their eco-anxiety and their post-traumatic reactions.
Trauma-informed therapy: Knowledge about human life in relationship to all life on the planet is increasingly being incorporated into therapeutic programs. There are increasing numbers of training programs for graduate students and mental health professionals to learn eco- or nature therapy. Sometimes simply asking someone if they are worried about the environment gives people an opportunity to share their concerns and receive support. For some, the process of going into forests and connecting with nature will enhance well-being and support awareness of the need for change.
The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) has summarized actions needed to address climate trauma needed by public policy, clinicians, and researchers:
- Public health and policy action: Support efforts to prevent traumatic stress and other mental health problems, and engage community leaders, grassroots organizations, health professionals, and educators to develop resilience initiatives.
- Clinical action: Deliver psychological care to communities and individuals.
- Research action: Understand the ways in which climate change impacts trauma, and test adaptation and mitigation strategies to prevent traumatic stress symptoms and support resilience.
The ISTSS also has a number of public resources about global climate change and trauma.
Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit, published in 2018 by Haymarket Books.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, published in 2014 by Viking Press.
The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation by Stephen W. Porges, published in 2011 by Norton Professional Books.
Trauma and Resilience Among Displaced Populations: A Sociocultural Exploration by Gail Theisen-Womersley, published in 2021 by Springer Nature Switzerland AG.
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine, with Ann Frederick, published in 1997 by North Atlantic Books.
Articles and Online Sources
Call climate change what it is: violence, published in The Guardian on April 7, 2014, by Rebecca Solnit.
Diagnosing climate trauma, published in The Ecologist on November 4, 2021, by Charlie Hertzog Young.
How can climate change affect natural disasters?, published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Department of the Interior.
Hurricanes hit the poor the hardest, published in Brookings on September 18, 2017, by Eleanor Krause and Richard V. Reeves.
Nurtured by Nature, published in Monitor on Psychology, Vol. 51, No. 3, American Psychological Association, on April 1, 2020, by Kirsten Weir.
Our children face “pretraumatic stress” from worries about climate change, published in The BMJ Opinion on November 19, 2020, by Lise Van Susteren.
PTSD and DSM-5, published by the PTSD: National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, last updated on June 9, 2023.
Understanding the stress response, published by Harvard Health Publishing on July 6, 2020.
The Injustice of Climate Change: How extreme weather disproportionately affects communities of color, published in Howard Magazine in Winter 2022, by Seth Shapiro.
We must protect our planet for our children’s future, published in The BMJ Opinion on October 24, 2021, by Lucy Reynolds.
A/77/136: Violence against women and girls in the context of the climate crisis, including environmental degradation and related disaster risk mitigation and response, published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on 11 July 2022, issued by the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, Reem Alsalem, delivered to General Assembly Seventy-seventh session.
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Anderson, C. A. (2001). Heat and violence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(1), 33–38. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00109
Augustinavicius, J. L., Lowe, S. R., Massazza, A., Hayes, K., Denckla, C., White, R. G., Cabán-Alemán, C., Clayton, S., Verdeli, L., Berry, H. (2021). Global climate change and trauma: An International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies Briefing Paper. Retrieved from: https://istss.org/public-resources/istss-briefing-papers/briefing-paper-global-climate-change-and-trauma
Bollfrass, A., & Shaver, A. (2015). The effects of temperature on political violence: global evidence at the subnational level. PloS one, 10(5), e0123505. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0123505
Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.
Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (2011). The psychological impacts of global climate change. The American psychologist, 66(4), 265–276. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023141
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American journal of preventive medicine, 14(4), 245–258. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8
Henritze, E., Goldman, S., Simon, S., & Brown, A. D. (2023). Moral injury as an inclusive mental health framework for addressing climate change distress and promoting justice-oriented care. The Lancet Planetary Health, 7(3). https://doi.org/10.1016/s2542-5196(22)00335-7
Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., & van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet. Planetary health, 5(12), e863–e873. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3
IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers. Policymakers [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, A. Reisinger, R. Slade, R. Fradera, M. Pathak, A. Al Khourdajie, M. Belkacemi, R. van Diemen, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, D. McCollum, S. Some, P. Vyas, (eds.)]. In: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. doi: 10.1017/9781009157926.001
Mahendran, R., Xu, R., Li, S., & Guo, Y. (2021). Interpersonal violence associated with hot weather. The Lancet. Planetary health, 5(9), e571–e572. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00210-2
Molyneaux, R., Gibbs, L., Bryant, R. A., Humphreys, C., Hegarty, K., Kellett, C., Gallagher, H. C., Block, K., Harms, L., Richardson, J. F., Alkemade, N., & Forbes, D. (2019). Interpersonal violence and mental health outcomes following disaster. BJPsych open, 6(1), e1. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjo.2019.82
Nickerson, A., Liddell, B., Asnaani, A., Carlsson, J., Fazel, M., Knaevelsrud, C., & Rasmussen, A. (2017). Trauma and mental health in forcibly displaced populations: An International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies Briefing Paper. Retrieved from https://istss.org/getattachment/Education-
Sartor, Z., Kelley, L., & Laschober, R. (2023). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Evaluation and Treatment. American family physician, 107(3), 273–281.
Seddighi, H., Salmani, I., Javadi, M. H., & Seddighi, S. (2021). Child Abuse in Natural Disasters and Conflicts: A Systematic Review. Trauma, violence & abuse, 22(1), 176–185. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838019835973
Shultz, J. M., Rechkemmer, A., Rai, A., & McManus, K. T. (2019). Public Health and Mental Health Implications of Environmentally Induced Forced Migration. Disaster medicine and public health preparedness, 13(2), 116–122. https://doi.org/10.1017/dmp.2018.27
Warner, C. H., Warner, C. M., Appenzeller, G. N., & Hoge, C. W. (2013). Identifying and managing posttraumatic stress disorder. American family physician, 88(12), 827–834.
White, B. (2015). States of emergency: Trauma and climate change. Ecopsychology, 7(4), 192–197. https://doi.org/10.1089/eco.2015.0024
Woodbury, Z. (2019). Climate trauma: Toward a new taxonomy of trauma. Ecopsychology, 11(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1089/eco.2018.0021
July 6, 2023
Author: Karen Hopenwasser, MD
Editor: Colleen Rollins, PhD