The Goldilocks zone of eco-anxiety and the deep weirdness of climate futures
An interview with climate-aware psychotherapist Dan Rubin
Hi Gen Dread head!
Welcome to the third edition in our three-part series that focuses on the practices, strategies and tips of climate-aware therapists in the Pacific Northwest of the US.
(First time here? Why not sign up for free weekly articles about staying sane in the climate crisis, delivered straight to your inbox?)
If you’re interested in how to deal with the massive uncertainty that the climate crisis creates, I highly suggest you check out the first edition in this series here, featuring Leslie Davenport. If you’re interested in how to balance hope and fear while walking the balance beam towards action, don’t miss the second edition featuring Andrew Bryant’s great ideas here.
Today’s featured climate-aware therapist is Dan Rubin
In this third and final edition of this series, I’m chatting to Dan Rubin, a practicing clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon who specializes in trauma work. Hope you enjoy the interview!
How do you start a session with someone who is feeling overwhelmed with eco-anxiety or eco- grief?
I don’t really have a formula. I tend to think of this as a parallel to cultural trauma. A lot of trauma is where something bad happened in the past, and we’re kind of stuck reliving the past in these dysfunctional ways. That is different from the trauma of racism or sexism, which is still happening. I think climate change trauma is more like the trauma of racism or sexism because it is still happening now. It is different from when I am hurt as a kid, and I replay that in my mind, and that hurts me. So it is important to validate that it makes sense to be afraid or to have grief because, yeah, this is actually happening, versus oh you’re overreacting to something that is not happening right now.
A lot of people will go to their therapists and say I have climate anxiety and that therapist will say well nothing is happening right now, let’s look at your dysfunctional thoughts around that. A lot of therapists are not quite getting it. You don’t tell someone who is suffering from racism oh it's not happening right now, get over your thoughts about it, because that’s racism and that’s traumatic in the moment. I like to tell people that feeling afraid or anxious or grief or whatever — that’s a sign of wellbeing. That means you’re paying attention. But there might be some dysfunction. If you’re so paralyzed that you can’t get out of bed, clearly there’s dysfunction right?
I want to help people get to the Goldilocks zone of anxiety. That means that you’re feeling like oh I’m worried about this, but you can still live your life and be proactive. If there’s too much anxiety, then you can’t do anything, and if there’s too little anxiety, then you’re not actually paying attention. So there’s a Goldilocks zone for different people, and that’s what I’m curious to find.
And what does a course of treatment look like?
I think a course of treatment looks like someone telling their story, that person being listened to, and then some education that having feelings around climate change is a sign of health. It needs to be fundamental to the course of treatment to be told that it is healthy to be concerned, and to notice, and that it can be unhealthy to notice too much and take on too much responsibility or to feel too much powerlessness. So treatment involves getting people out of their isolation and getting people out of their catastrophic thinking. I want people to remember that there is going to be a future after climate change. We aren’t heading to Mad Max in ten years, or some other kind of apocalyptic hell scape.
As bad as it gets, there’s still going to be people, societies in some form, there’s going to be joy, people will have babies, people will make art. So we need to be able to see that there’s a tomorrow tomorrow. It is not necessarily hope, but it is seeing that we can participate in our future.
Speak more about the parallels you see between climate trauma and trauma by abusers, and how you would help people in either scenario as a trauma therapist.
Your abusers do not get to define the terms of your healing and you’re not to blame for what is harming you. Our options are really limited by the climate abusers, that’s just a fact --- they are intentionally limiting our options. It is the same with someone who beats you up as a kid. That person is limiting your options.
With trauma people can have a lot of shame, a lot of self blame, you know, why didn’t I fight back? Why did I disassociate? Why couldn’t I remember my trauma? Well, no one is responsible for those things because the body will do things to protect us from harm. We’ll forget sometimes and even be kind to abusers because we have to survive them. There’s a lot of normalizing of survival and uprooting of blame and shame that is part of trauma work. So with this collective trauma of climate change, we need to stop shaming ourselves for having a car, and say okay what choices do I need to make now, knowing that I needed a car and wasn’t given options beyond having a combustible engine car? What can I do now? What choices can I make?
If someone comes in after reading Deep Adaptation or similar work, and now believes societal collapse is inevitable on a relatively short term scale, would you try to have them see that as catastrophic thinking that isn’t rooted in inevitability?
I would say, let’s look at what the scientists are saying, and let’s not give up. How does that change things? And also let’s look at the attractiveness of that kind of belief that everything is fucked, because there is a certain appeal to that, like well at least that's certain, at least I know it is really bad. Part of my work with trauma and climate trauma is about how we can relate to uncertainty and how we can begin to participate in an uncertain world. No matter what we do with the climate, it is not going to get 100% better, but still we can make things 5% better. 5% is better than 0%. It is the same with other kinds of trauma. With some people’s personal trauma, they’re never going to get 100% better, but 0 to 5 is huge.
If your goal were to help someone shift away from thinking that we’re totally screwed and that there’s no point in fighting for “a better catastrophe”, what would you do?
This is where we need to remember that people are so different and they need to form individual relationships where they can explore these questions. So if it was someone I knew well in therapy and I kind of trust them, I’d say okay well you’re kind of fucked anyway, I mean you are going to die, and so what are you going to have for lunch tomorrow? Oh you want to go to eat at your friend's. Why would you want to do that even though you’re going to die one day? Oh it's still meaningful. Ok then let’s live while we’re alive even though we’re going to die. It’s called a paradoxical intervention. You’re screwed anyway, so why do you keep on doing things?
This idea that we are all fucked can get so conceptual. We need to know that our real lives are meaningful and we don’t need to be perfect, but we can get five percent of goodness somewhere. Maybe for some it looks like eating less meat. It can look like so many things. Moreover, I’d ask them, where are people already living meaningful lives even though they’re going to die one day, and how can we build from that natural wisdom to become more active and engaged regarding the climate?
Is it a sense of aliveness you’re trying to get people in touch with?
Absolutely. I’m convinced that if people get in touch with their natural aliveness, whatever they do is going to be activism. Maybe they don’t do climate stuff but they get really involved with sick kids, or a food bank, or whatever it happens to be. If they’re doing something that’s alive and that translates into art or service, that’s climate activism. When they’re engaged and they’re benefiting their community, that’s aliveness, and we’re going to need more and more of that.
I think we think of activism with a way too narrow lens, and that excludes a lot of people. That was my problem when I was getting started. I was like, I don’t want to go to marches, I don't want to go to meetings, I don’t have that much time, I have little kids. Then I realized, oh wait a minute I’m already doing this trauma work, surely climate can be included. Why not? If someone wants to get really good at violin so they can play on the street corner and make people smile, I think that’s brilliant climate activism.
What’s something that you think is being overlooked in the way that psychology and climate intersect?
I am actually optimistic about our future with climate change. I think we are going to be very wounded but I think there is also going to be a lot of healing and wounding at the same time. For instance, there is an emergence of treatments like psilocybin assisted therapy. I think that will become a very good thing. And I also think it is no coincidence that we are having things like the climate crisis and #MeToo and Black Lives Matter at the same time. All these things are just very much related. There’s also a resurgence and interest in Pagan religion. A lot of the old ways are coming back because they worked better than what we are doing now.
I think we’ll see more of that resurgence and then also lots of new tech. I’m not an eco modernist but I’m also not against it. I think we will have really weird combinations and all these kinds of experiments of being that will make it really anxiety provoking and dangerous, and for a lot of people a very deadly and dangerous future, but also a really exciting future of a lot of growth and creativity.
I feel kind of bad saying that because we are supposed to be on one side or the other, where it is going to be horrible or we are going to be fine. I think it is going to get weirder than that. This is an opportunity for experimentation and spontaneity and aliveness. So I am interested in different ways we can embrace the weirdness, and in the climate movement, stop yelling at each other about what the “right way” to do it is. I hope we can become more interested in new combinations that can help different people move through this, knowing that it will not produce the final answer.
I love how you’ve raised the deep weirdness of the moment we are in and the future we’re moving towards. That opens up a lot of potentialities. Thank you Dan!
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A bit of yappin’
This week, I was on great new Life Raft podcast from New Orleans Public Radio. In their words: “We talk with science writer Britt Wray, who has been researching the overlap of mental health and climate change. She defines some terms, offers some tips and tricks, and shares her personal experience with feelings of climate dread. Plus, she tells a fun story of that time she gave a presentation on climate denial and eco-stress to a bunch of energy executives.” Listen here.
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Gen Dread is a completely independent research and writing project about the psychological impacts of the climate and eco-crisis. So far, I’ve been doing it for free, and what I’d hugely appreciate from you is if you shared these posts with your friends, colleagues and family to help this community of readers grow. Thanks!
See you next Wednesday! -Britt