Climate change (and hotter summers) affect our psychology. They might even make us more violent

The effects of the climate crisis range from increased anxiety to violence and an increase in suicides after certain extreme events related to climate change, explained Dr. Dovilė Šorytė, an environmental psychologist and researcher at the University’s Faculty of Philosophy. from Vilnius in Lithuania.

The report, co-authored by the American Psychological Association, first suggests that a distinction should be made between the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on human mental health. According to Dr Šorytė, the direct impact comes from the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters associated with climate change – floods, droughts, hurricanes, fires and heat waves.

The consequences are felt both directly and indirectly by those affected

“During such events, people can suffer physical injuries, as well as lose loved ones, their homes or their source of income. This means they may experience shock, stress, grief and bereavement, as well as feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Witnesses to events may also experience strong emotions. After a natural disaster, the number of cases of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide increases,” Šorytė said.

She suggested the 2013-2014 floods in the UK as an example: 3 years after the floods, 7.9% of the population affected by the floods showed symptoms of depression and 17.5% showed symptoms of disorder post-traumatic stress; compared to 0.9% and 2.6% of the unaffected population. Damage to the homes of affected residents has been highlighted as the main reason for the decline in their emotional well-being.

According to the psychologist, the indirect impacts arise from more gradual processes – such as rising temperatures and sea levels – and the associated changes are linked to less secure food systems, weaker infrastructure and economic losses.

“These changes can lead to feelings of loss, anxiety, helplessness, fatalism and loss of control, combined with increased rates of depression, sleep disturbances and substance abuse. In this case, physical health problems, such as higher rates of infectious or cardiovascular disease, associated with rising temperatures, can also affect a person’s psychological well-being,” Dr Šorytė said. She added that it is an inverse relationship: our mental state affects our physical health. For example, prolonged stress damages the immune system. Therefore, psychological effects and physiological ailments are very much related.

The poor and children among the most vulnerable

The researcher argues that the impact of climate change on communities includes a weakening of social cohesion and an increase in violence, conflict and aggression. Projections made in the United States show that climate change will lead to 3.3 million additional attacks between 2010 and 2099.

“Violent behavior is particularly associated with high temperatures, as heat is a physiologically unpleasant stressor that can lead to frustration and hostility. Psychological consequences, at the community level, are also associated with increased competition for natural resources, to migration motivated by ecological causes and to a decline in social stability”, underlined the psychologist.

Regarding the groups that will be most affected by climate change, the researcher first identified communities in certain geographic areas or regions that are more severely affected by climate change, such as island populations, as well as people whose livelihoods depend directly on the natural environment. She cited the example of droughts in India between 1995 and 2011, which dramatically increased the number of suicides among farmers, especially those living in poor rural areas.

“It is not surprising that communities with high levels of poverty and socio-economic inequality are among the most vulnerable. Older people, as well as people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, migrants, refugees and women, especially those who are pregnant or have recently given birth, infants and children are also more likely to be affected by the climate crisis.

She pointed out that children are even more likely than adults to develop depression or post-traumatic stress disorder after a traumatic experience, and that the forms of their disorders can be more severe.

“It is estimated that approximately 175 million children worldwide are affected each year by natural disasters caused by climate change. Therefore, it is important to take into account the most vulnerable groups when applying any measure aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change or improving our level of adaptation,” she explained.

Ecological anxiety leads to lower birth rates

The psychologist pointed out that climate change anxiety can be linked to threats to a person’s health or life, as well as impacting their children, friends and family, future generations and others. other species. According to her, this anxiety is specifically linked to the current or expected damage, loss and destruction caused by climate change.

“There is also a broader concept of ecological anxiety, which includes anxiety about the consequences of the climate crisis, as well as anxiety about any damage or change in the environment, whether current or anticipated. The inability to predict and control these changes, combined with the uncertainty surrounding them, is an important feature of this anxiety.Moreover, ecological anxiety is associated with feelings of anger, guilt, shame and despair,” said Dr Šorytė.

She adds that the term “ecological grief” is often used in this context, meaning the grief and sadness felt in response to the loss of important places, ecosystems or species. A recent study in ten countries found that almost 60% of young people aged 16 to 25 felt very or extremely concerned about climate change. “Some people even wonder if it’s worth having children, because of these concerns,” the researcher said.

She pointed out that negative emotions related to climate change or other environmental issues are a natural response, so it shouldn’t be seen as a problem in itself. However, if such emotions become crippling, disrupting a person’s daily life and making them feel hopeless, she urges them to take them seriously and seek help.

According to Dr. Šorytė, tackling climate change requires both conversation and concrete action. The first step is to recognize the emotions that arise and talk about our experience of climate change.

The researcher believes that another effective way to deal with anxiety is to get involved in specific environmentally friendly actions, aimed at helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. This not only helps alleviate the problem, but is also an empowering act that builds control and reduces feelings of helplessness. Spending time in nature can also help ease anxiety, while boosting a person’s motivation to protect the environment.

Teresa H. Sadler