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Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis
Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis

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5 Climate distress as a healthy response to reality

There is growing and widespread agreement that eco-distress is a healthy response to the reality of the climate crisis as expressed in the statement to the House of Lords: ‘Although painful, these emotions are realistic responses to the realities of today’s world’. Within the wider politics of climate change, the point that eco-anxiety is not a clinical condition is important to make because psychology – notably Clinical Psychology with its links to Psychiatry – has a tendency to label conditions as pathologies of individuals without recognition of the wider social reality: ‘you are worried about climate change, there must be something wrong with you, let’s help make you feel less distressed by prescribing this medication’. While antidepressants, for example, may dull the feelings, they disconnect the person experiencing them from the real source of their worries – the fact that not enough is being done to avert a climate and ecological catastrophe.

This vignette, somewhat oversimplified, nonetheless points to some embedded psychological assumptions: life problems are typically seen by Psychology as a malfunction of the individual that should be treated. Professional psychologists are trained to evaluate the symptoms and provide a corresponding diagnosis (e.g., anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder). Diagnoses are guided by classifications and typologies that psychologists have constructed and developed over many decades, guided by psychologists’ cultural and social values. (They are contained in a huge American tome called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM, which is a core reference book for Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology.) For example, homosexuality used to be perceived as a psychological disease until relatively recently when it was removed from these classification systems. This is because societal values changed, and not because Psychology discovered new knowledge about human nature that went against its previous findings.

Psychiatry is a branch of medicine and Psychology tends to medicalise psychological issues. In the way that medicine can identify problems in people’s bodies and prescribe particular medication to fix them, psychology has taken a similar approach to psychological issues – they could be treated with medicine and individual therapy. However, as we have seen, psychological problems are more complex, the consequence not only of their current situations but of problematic experiences that may reach back into previous generations and have shaped a person’s development.

Based on her clinical practice, psychotherapist Caroline Hickman has tried to categorise eco-anxiety by developing a simple scale (Hickman, 2020). However, she cautions about using it too rigidly or in an overly clinical medicalised way. This is a shortened version of her scale.


  • Some feelings of upset, but not constant
  • Reassured that others have the answers
  • Little disruption in cognition/thinking


  • Feeling upset more frequently (e.g. weekly) and more strongly
  • Fundamental belief that solutions will be found
  • Some disruption in cognition/thinking, but not pre-occupied by the crisis
  • Some knowledge about facts and figures in relation to the climate crisis, but not obsessed


  • Daily upset and feelings of distress increasing in duration, frequency and strength
  • Fears of social collapse alongside fears about climate change
  • Signs of cognitive/thinking changes such as guilt and shame
  • Very little faith in ‘others’ finding or acting on solutions
  • Willing to end relationships with people who are in denial about the climate emergency
  • Frequently feel insecure


  • Intrusive thoughts, sleep affected and preoccupation with the climate emergency
  • Unable to manage emotional responses (such as crying a lot, or angry outbursts)
  • Struggle to enjoy any aspect of life
  • Strongly held beliefs that the climate crisis will lead to social collapse and ultimately extinction of the human species
  • No belief that authority figures will act to mitigate against climate change
  • Severe disruption to other aspects of life (‘it doesn’t matter if I have a pension/home/marriage/job because the world is ending soon anyway’)

Activity 5 How distressed are you?

After reading through Hickman’s scale descriptions above, consider the following questions:

  • Can you locate yourself on the scale?
  • Has your position on the scale changed or does it oscillate?
  • Does your position on the scale depend on other factors?
  • Do you think it is helpful to think of eco-distress as being on a scale?
  • How helpful did you find the above categories in recognising your own relation to eco-anxiety?
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As well as the risk of medicalising what could be considered a reasonable response to the climate crisis, another problem with trying to categorise eco-anxiety is that we all tend to oscillate between varying degrees of distress. Sometimes we may not think about the climate and ecological crisis very much at all. At other times, it can dominate our thoughts, conversations and even our night-time dreams. Our level of distress is mediated by many factors, social and psychological.