A therapist's tips for dealing with uncertainty that the climate crisis creates

Leslie Davenport explains how to stretch our window of tolerance + much more

Hi and welcome back to Gen Dread! 

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This week is the first edition in a new interview series where over the next three weeks, we’ll dive into the skills, practices, and advice of climate-aware therapists here at Gen Dread. As time goes on and the planetary health crisis intensifies, I’ll feature more interviews with wise practitioners around the world, to learn how they help people cultivate resilience. Not just therapists, but knowledge holders of all kinds. To start us off, this first three part series focuses on climate-aware therapists who are working in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. 

Today’s featured climate aware therapist is Leslie Davenport

Leslie Davenport is a licensed integrative psychotherapist and author of Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change. Leslie splits her time between the Tacoma/Seattle and San Francisco Bay areas. 

How did you get into climate psychology and become a climate-aware therapist? 

It was close to ten years ago that the realities of climate change as we see them now became clear to me. Once that happened, it shifted my entire focus. I put climate change front and centre in my life and asked myself what I could do to make the most impact. I lobbied and petitioned, but it started dawning on me that climate change is clearly caused by human behaviour and yet there were no behaviouralists at the table looking for solutions. So I thought, why not? Today there are more, but then, our absence was striking. It was clear to me that a lot of what I was trained in applied, such as:

How do we deal with denial?

How do we facilitate conversations so that things don’t get more polarized?

How do we deal with overwhelm?

I wanted to ramp up quickly so I could get the whole field a bit more on board. That’s why the book I wrote was marketed as kind of a textbook for mental health professionals, to get that shift happening in our professional field. 

Is it common for your clients to bring up the climate on their own in your sessions? 

For a lot of clients, climate change is right up there in the front, while others are just feeling this ambient sense of stress or distress and aren’t always tying it to the state of the world. I would say the people who seek me out specifically for eco-anxiety is probably 20%. 5 years ago it was zero and now it is 20 percent so that is a growing trend. Interestingly, those who seek me out for eco-anxiety are typically active in environmental fields in one way or another.

What has it been like working with people in the wake of the wildfires, which have been getting worse on the west coast year on year?

When someone comes in after a disaster, I’m thinking of someone who lost their home in a California fire, there’s basically PTSD. This is someone who got a knock on the door, had to leave at night, was driving with embers flying on side of the car, didn’t know if he would make it out or not, was not allowed to have access to the area for a week, and then came back to find that there was nothing left. The treatment approaches are very similar to other forms of dealing with trauma, such as a car accident. So I have trauma based tools to help soothe the nervous system, like EMDR, and mindfulness type practices that help people self soothe. I also help them become aware of any stories about things that might have happened in the past but are not happening in the present moment. Stories about not being safe, that their life is at risk, the world is not safe, that sort of thing. This can help soften the irrational sense of being in danger and is a tool that targets the way that trauma is held is. 

What’s different with climate-change disasters is that there is a reasonable concern about a recurring event. The area he lives in has become very fire-prone, so there’s no going back to a sense of a previous quality of ease or safety. It can trigger additional losses, and in the case of this person, he is considering uprooting from an area he has called home for some time, and relocating out of state. 

How do you work with someone who comes in with a lot of anxiety and grief over acknowledging climate-related disasters, disruptions and losses, even if they haven’t experienced them directly?

As a therapist, it is routine for us to take an assessment of what is being taken at face value, which might be totally valid but also, is there anything that is feeding it? So I inquire about past states of loss, grief, what their state of anxiety was like before climate became a focus, to see if there is anything else that needs to be addressed that would help take the whole thing down. I added a question on my standard intake form that asks, “When you hear about what’s happening in the world, including climate change, how does it affect you? It needs to be added to our assessment tools.

I also do what I call internal strategies and external strategies. So internal strategies are about self soothing, and I help them identify if for them that might look like yoga or kickboxing --- whatever helps get them off the stressful hamster wheel. Externally, I consider advocacy a therapeutic intervention once the feelings have been expressed, validated and explored.

Even if we took it out of the climate arena, if someone is feeling victimized, helpless, or hopeless, it is really common to encourage them to feel empowered. What can you do to make a difference? How can you stand in your power? With climate it is the same – what can you do to at least be a part of reducing the threat? Being a part of that shift is therapeutic.

I also consider advocacy in extremely broad terms. For some people, doing the protests is great, for others they think they could never do that. But really, people can exert sustainability anywhere, starting with their immediate sphere of influence. Parents can talk to their kids about it and plant a garden, and teachers can work it into a lesson plan. Whatever they can do to make sure that they are part of a proactive movement with many other people helps. 

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How do you help people manage anxiety that comes from all the uncertainty that the climate and wider ecological crisis creates? 

When there are a lot of unknowns, people want to just land on something like it is all going to be OK, and that is a head in the sand approach. Or they want to land on there is nothing I can do so let’s forget it and fly around the world. It is very hard to stay in the tension of uncertainty. It feels as though we are going to get relief if we can just put our feet down, but that is not necessarily true if we are choosing a place that is not grounded in the truth. Neither one of those scenarios I mentioned are, and so part of my work focuses on education and tools around that.

I also talk with them about the window of tolerance. So the idea there is that we all have an emotional and physiological range in which we can operate pretty well - and it moves. Sometimes it is bigger and sometimes it is smaller. If we haven’t had a good night's sleep in three days and we aren’t eating well and there’s a lot going on, our zone or window of tolerance shrinks and it would be a bad time to have a sensitive conversation with someone. If we are not in our zone of tolerance we either tend to lash out or withdraw and isolate, kind of numb out.

But there are a lot of ways to learn to expand that window of tolerance through things like mindfulness practice and practicing self care and paying attention to when we are at our edge and knowing that that is a good time to step back and stretch our comfort zone in order to be able to tolerate uncertainty for longer periods of time.

Why is the window of tolerance so relevant in the context of climate-aware therapy?

All of us, every single one of us, need to stretch our window of tolerance because not only is it hard now but it is going to get harder for a while with our planetary crisis. I don’t think we are prepared to increase our capacity to bear witness to struggles and suffering, without just exiting or feeling overwhelmed or checking out or lashing out.

Explaining that and then providing a variety of tools to help us do this is the kind of the fruitful ground where I try to work. And honestly, the tools are not radically different from other forms of working with stress or anxiety or grief. It is being able to talk about it, process it, do what you can when you can, and try to work towards acceptance when there may not be a solution in the moment. It is kind of like the basic premise of the Serenity Prayer. You know (paraphrasing) if there is something that I can do, I hope I can find the courage to do it. If there is nothing I can do right now, how can I be more accepting of that even if it is painful? 

If someone came into your therapy room and said there is no point in anything anymore because the future is being shut down, are there approaches that come to mind about how to work with someone in that state?

Again if you took it away from climate, that's similar to someone who is feeling suicidal for other reasons, right? A suicidal client believes life is not worth living for whatever their reasons are. So the first thing is to create a lot of space to listen and to create enough rapport as I can to be welcomed into their emotional terrain. The fact that they would seek out a therapist, pay the money, and set aside the time is also telling me that even if they are not voicing it, there may be a piece in there that is wanting or willing to consider that maybe there is more. Because if that was it, they wouldn't necessarily take the time. But I wouldn't go there initially.

I'd hear them out and hear about how they got to their perspectives, witness their pain, be with them in it, because honestly sometimes that kind of thing starts to shift it a bit when people have been holding it in. Isolation tends to solidify feelings. Once it is voiced and brought forward and there is air and space around it, there is kind of a flow that starts to happen.

The other thing is once a person feels heard, seen, and validated, there is often then also more receptivity to a conversation. Sometimes what gets the conversation stuck is one person coming in saying it's all over and the other says no it is not! and both are entrenched in their own point of view. So it is about creating that opening first and that validation and being willing to be present with them in the pain of where they are. And then often from there a conversation can come. It can sometimes move factually -- how did they come to understand this, and is there skewed thinking that they've just locked down on, like a dog on a bone? Is there room for more there? 

I also like to do forms of unscripted guided imagery because it takes us out of just that cognitive mind and reopens us to other ways of knowing and perceiving and sometimes insights come forth that aren't available through conversation. 

How does that work? Is it you prompting them to create imagery in their minds? 

Yes, it’s unscripted but it has an infrastructure. We often start with relaxation by creating a place where they feel free from external pressures. Instead of me suggesting that they walk along the beach or listen to the birds in their mind, they are in a very relaxed state where they are ready to receive. I then invite the image that makes them feel at peace to arise and when it begins to take shape, they keep their eyes closed and describe to me aloud where they are and what it is like. We start to explore it together until they reach a qualitative state of unlocking the tension that binds us all. And when they are in this open state, it affects different parts of the mind.

Back in the old days we'd talk about the right brain and left brain. It is obviously more complex than that, but it goes into what we might call the more artistic creative form of mind where we are open to possibilities in a different way. It takes us to a state of being where our interconnection with all of life becomes visceral. People have impressions or experiences bubble up. So it is a way to feel freer from the more familiar perspectives because we all construct things around us to help us make sense of the world, and some of those serve us well and some of them don't, so this starts to create some openings. 

Do you have any other points of advice you’d like to offer people who are feeling overwhelmed by the challenges facing us? 

This work happens in stages and just takes time. I would say there were almost 4 years when I felt like I was in a pretty constant state of grief related to the environment. It really didn't lift very much and now it feels more fluid in the way I have been describing to you. So sometimes it just takes time and if that is where someone is starting, especially if they are relatively new to this, that may be normal as well. 

Thank you so much Leslie!

Did Leslie’s words resonate with you? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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