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Climate Crisis & Trauma

The scenes from Lahaina are gut-wrenching. I’m fortunate enough to have been there a couple of times — visiting family as a child and with my mom as an adult — and I have vivid memories of the places that have been reduced to ash. Watching videos on tiktok of people who are just out in the ocean, terrified, hoping someone will come rescue them is just too much.

A few summers ago, while I was living in Seattle, we had this horrible combination of a heat wave and forest fires everywhere, giving us purple air quality. Much of the PNW doesn’t have air conditioning because of the temperate climate, so most of us were choosing between having the windows closed and boiling or opening the windows/turning on our a/c units to breathe in the debris from the wildfires surrounding us. It felt like living in the music video for the Imagine Dragons song Radioactive.

It seems like everywhere we look there are signs of climate catastrophe. For those of us who believe we are in a climate crisis, we understand this is an existential threat, and it's terrifying.

People talk about climate anxiety, climate despair, and use other ways of talking about the emotions that we experience as we sit with the knowledge that politicians and corporations are not moving quickly enough to stop this thread. But, really, what we are dealing with is a collective experience of a long running (seemingly unending) traumatic event.

Trauma is a psychological response to an event a person perceives as life threatening over which they have no control. While our experience watching climate disaster happen around us is certainly different from the experience of someone who has actually had to flee their home due to fire, flood, hurricane, tornado or any of the other events that are increasing due to the changing climate, many of us walk around with the knowledge that our existence (or the existence of the creation we love and care for) is under threat and so much of the ability to actually do something about it is out of our hands. We might not meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD or acute trauma, but many of us are still experiencing climate change as traumatic. And many of us are doing so in addition to struggling with other traumas, including the trauma of existing as people with marginalized identities, mental health diagnoses, disability, neurodivergency, poverty, etc. Trauma upon trauma upon trauma.

So what can we do about it? How do we get past the very real and understandable desire to give in, to dissociate, to self-isolate... to say fuck it, it's all fucked, what's the point?

(obligatory disclaimer here that I am not a therapist, I'm a person who does trauma-informed ministry, has read a lot and works with trauma professionals. This information is not intended to diagnose or treat anything, it's not professional advice, it's thoughts from me, your trauma informed pastor friend on the internet.)

A lot of the methods for healing from - or living with - trauma, come down to a couple of things that most people can access. In her groundbreaking work on trauma, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman writes that the first thing a person who has experienced trauma needs to heal is safety. For many people, physical safety may not be an option, and this is complicated by the fact that continued environmental degradation may have an effect on both our perceived and actual safety. What may be more accessible is finding safety in human connection.

Connection is at the core of healing from, or learning to live with, trauma. Relationships that are caring, mutual, kind, consensual, honest, and nurturing (among other things), allow us to have some sense of safety. This kind of connection also give us space to grieve, to share our stories and to be witnessed and heard -- all important parts of trauma recovery. Connection breaks the feelings of isolation that trauma often causes or that can result from trauma, and empowers us to do something.

As one of the elements of a traumatic experience is a sense of loss of control, a counter to this is to do something to bring back that sense of control, to becoming active in fighting climate change. Do what is in your capacity, in your skill set (or a skill set you wish to have), what you feel called to. There is room for everyone. I tried to go door knocking for a recent campaign. I had a panic attack. Walking up to strangers houses to talk to them about an issue is not in my skill set. But you know what is? Teaching, writing letters, creating community, helping people resource themselves for resilience. So that's what I do. What can you do? Moreover, what are you already doing?

Living with the daily fear that we are in an extinction event sucks. It is traumatic and that is real. We can't therapy our way out of it. But we can ease both the feelings of dread and climate change by creating authentic community and working for change together.


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