Planetary health and personal health are linked. But what about mental health? A growing field of “climate therapists” is helping tackle that part of the wellness equation, noting a rising demand for coping strategies linked to anxiety and disconnection. Meanwhile, zillions of TikTok influencers are posting about “eco anxiety” as if it’s a diagnosis instead of a social media phrase, which is helpful and hurtful in equal measure.
So how do we make sure we center the environment without losing our own sanity in the process? We asked Dr. Patricia Hasbach, the first co-director of the Ecopsychology Program at Lewis & Clark College whose work has been cited by MIT and the American Psychological Association as a guiding tenet in the field. Dr. Hasbach is also a practicing psychologist who’s the author of Grounded: A Guided Journal to Help You Reconnect with the Power of Nature… And Yourself. Here’s how she describes her job, what she wants you to know about the link between the inner self and the outer world, and how you can stop “ghosting nature” and start using it to make you feel great. (Yay.)
You’re a climate therapist. What does that mean?I have a number of different hats that I wear. Primarily, my work is as a psychotherapist, where I work with individuals and couples dealing with life issues. I also teach at graduate school, part time, and I do some writing. I've just finished a new book that came out last month called Grounded and published by Simon and Schuster. And a big part of my work is really focused on how people and their relationship with nature can impact not only their health, but also the health of the planet.
How did you realize that nature was a key part of people’s well-being?It started becoming a big issue for me back in the mid-1990s. I realized that we, as a field of psychologists, weren’t really looking at the human and nature relationship through most of our field’s 200-year history. In all my training, we really focused on the human-to-human relationships. I took a workshop about “eco-psychology” in Palo Alto in 1996, and I thought, “Ohhhh. Yes. This is what we’re missing.”
Why was “eco-psychology” so exciting to you?It really put words to the relationship between people and nature! For so long, I think we just took that for granted so much. We didn't even stop to realize that there was a reciprocity needed in that relationship, meaning that the natural world has always taken care of humans, as we've evolved within the natural world. It provides the air we breathe, and the water we drink, and the food that nourishes us, that keeps us alive. But what have humans done? Have we taken care of the natural world?
Oh gosh. Were we dating the natural world, and then we ghosted it?
Well, like any relationship, if we don't take care of that connection, it falters. And so very early on, I started to think about the context of how we practice psychology. Even before “climate change” was being discussed as a major impact on our mental health and well-being, these red flags were going up for some of us in the mental health field. What about this human-and-nature relationship?
Our relationship with nature is important, obviously, but so is our relationship with family, friends, our own bodies.All of it!
All of it! How do you work to address our connection to the environment within a person’s whole, full self?The way I've really started to frame dealing with eco-psychology and eco-therapy is expanding that scope of treatment. Typically, when we're sitting with a client, we're looking at expanding circles of relationships. First it’s about how you are with you. Then it’s with your family system, past and present. Then it’s your social system. Then it’s the cultural systems that affect your well-being. Typically in psychology, we've stopped there. But I’ve been going one circle broader and saying, “Okay, what's the environmental or ecological system that the client is living in? And what kind of relationship do they have or not have to the natural world?”
Why hasn’t this always been a thing?!Well, older generations have been so focused on the life of the self, you know? And that’s vitally important work. But I don’t think the self can exist without nature. And when we ignore our relationship to nature, we aren’t as fulfilled as we need to be.
People are diagnosing themselves with “eco anxiety” and “climate anxiety” all the time on TikTok. When did you first notice those terms coming into your practice?As a clinician, I started to see people raising those questions probably 8-10 years ago. They would bring up a news story that they heard about global warming. Often, they’d want to talk about the sadness of seeing polar bears on melting ice caps, or finding out a species going extinct, or learning that chemicals used in nature killed birds and animals. But it also coincides with when I started to ask different questions in the therapeutic process.
When I was asking people to tell me about their family of origin, I might say, “Oh, and what did you like to do as a kid playing outdoors in nature?” Then later, talking about their current life situation, I might say, “So how much time do you get outdoors now and what do you like to do?” And it started to allow nature to become an appropriate topic within the therapeutic conversation… But certainly in the last decade, as climate-related weather events have become more common, and more severe, and closer to home for many people, the topic has become much more central to the therapeutic process.
What are the benefits of addressing the environment in a mental health setting?This is where it gets complicated. I think it's important that we don't make “eco-anxiety” a pathology, because many times, anxiety can be useful. It can be a red flag that lets us know there is a danger up ahead, and we need to make changes to avoid or get through that danger… And we know the environment needs help! So some amount of anxiety is useful, because it allows us to say, “This is real, and we need to prioritize it as an issue, so that we can make real changes for the health of the planet and people.”
What should I do if my friend says they’re stressed about the environment?Yeah, that’s okay! When I'm speaking with someone about eco anxiety, one of the first things I do is support them. I say, “I hear you. These feelings that you're having are about your concern for the future, and about concern of the natural world around you. You have places you love that might be more prone to wildfires or floods, and that’s very upsetting. These are very real, appropriate feelings!” Then I turn our discussion to resilience, coping strategies, and concrete ways to counter those feelings.
When should we tackle those feelings ourselves, and when is it time to get help?When the anxiety starts to become paralyzing. That would be whether it's “eco-anxiety” or any kind of anxiety. If people can't leave their homes or they can't function in the world, that’s when they need help, and it’s always okay to ask for help. If you’re saying, “I don’t see any hope for the future,” that’s a time to ask for help. And that's where the work then becomes developing a sense of resilience with a professional.
What are your favorite simple steps for connecting people back to nature, and renewing that human-to-nature relationship?One of my favorite prompts is called “your nature gift of the day.” It could be as simple as feeling the cool breeze coming in the window, or the burst of a blueberry when you bite into it, or the way the sky looks at night. Look for those sensory-rich experiences with nature every day, and you’ll start noticing them all around you, and even that can do a lot to help you feel more connected.