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This eco-therapist is tackling the mental health effects of climate change

As climate change gets worse, eco-therapy is on the rise.

Climate change is radically altering how humans live and interact with nature.

Deforestation, loss of habitats and animals, polluted air, dirtier water, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, more frequent and deadly hurricanes, and flooding. The list goes on.

It’s a lot to think about; for some, it can be overwhelming.

Fortunately, a growing niche within therapy deals with ecology: how humans interact with the Earth. That includes helping people navigate grief, tragedy, and uncertainty around climate change. This form of therapy helps people find peace through nature and to better recognize the reciprocal nature of protecting the planet.

Kathryn Dietzway is a New Orleans psychotherapist specializing in post traumatic stress disorder, complex PTSD and dissociative disorders. She is also a qualified eco-therapist. Her practice, The Therapy Garden, helps people cope with many aspects of the human experience by acknowledging the impact of systemic and macro-level problems such as racism, climate change and income inequality, among many others.

Reckon spoke to Dietzway about eco-therapy and why climate change has become a mental health issue for many people.

What is climate change therapy?

Climate change therapy is about helping people process their feelings and thoughts around issues affecting ecology, the earth. We’re holding space; we’re processing; we’re normalizing the thoughts and feelings that a person is having about what’s going on with the climate and what’s happening to the earth. It’s something that I pull a lot from the field of eco-therapy.

I noticed you have multiple degrees that cover topics related to the human experience. Is that what brought you to eco-therapy?

It goes back to my bachelor’s in sociology and anthropology, and then my master’s in social work. One of the themes that all those subjects deal with is how global-level issues affect humans and their mental health. Those could be systemic issues that affect the communities we are part of. And so that’s kind of where it started. But Covid is where I did a deep dive into eco-therapy because I needed some deeper healing. I was feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic and global level suffering.

I felt claustrophobic and stuck in my house. I had all this trauma going on around me, and one of the things that helped heal me was walking outside and feeling the earth beneath my feet or the wind on my face. It reminded me of the Earth and how healing it can be.

My clients were experiencing many of the same issues as me. So I decided to look into eco-therapy through the Earth Body Institute. They’re based in California. Eco-therapy is a lot about healing. They are healing your psyche by connecting healthily with nature and having a conscious connection with nature.

My basic ideology is that because we know people can be healed by nature, we must take better care of nature. It’s reciprocal and it has everything to do with climate change.

So eco-therapy can be something that’s a way to encourage people to start taking care of the environment in a healing and beautiful way.

I can definitely relate to that. Walking and biking around saved me during the early months of the pandemic. Then I sort of had my mental health issue after getting Covid.

There didn’t seem to be any particular reason for it, but being outside helped a lot. What experiences do your clients go through before reaching out to you and other eco-therapists that can talk about climate change?

It’s a lot of diverse experiences. Some people are just looking for climate-aware therapists because they don’t want to be gaslighted because of the feelings that they’re having about the climate. Unfortunately, in psychology, there is a perspective that your mental health struggles are just a result of cognitive distortions and ways of thinking. That’s a really hyper-individualistic focus. And there’s not much room in psychology and therapy for going bigger and having those conversations and creating space for significant global-level issues, like the climate.

I’m not going to tell you that you’re crazy for caring and being affected by climate change.

And then there are also people who have been through Hurricane Katrina and more recent storms who have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms based on severe trauma.

It sounds like you typically see people with strong feelings about climate change and people who have been traumatically affected by climate change events. PTSD is often associated with military service in a combat zone, but it seems that PTSD can be attached to anything in life.

What kind of advice do you give people who are struggling?

PTSD doesn’t discriminate. It’s a nervous system response to extreme stress. Sometimes that resolves and people don’t have the lingering PTSD. And sometimes, it doesn’t resolve and some therapies can help people who are really having a lot of flashbacks to, say, the day a hurricane hit their city and home. So they may experience those flashbacks every time it rains and develop a panic.

Some therapies can help target and reprocess the initial event, which gets them back to a place of greater functioning. Specific therapies like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy can help. That’s the one that I specialize in, and it can be for any trauma. Maybe you’re in a climate incident like a fire or hurricane, or you were wounded in the military. No matter what it is, that therapy can help with it.

Are there simple things people can do to help themselves in moments of panic or create better mental health habits?

Creating a conscious connection and relationship with nature can look like a simple walk outside or whatever feels available to you. It might just be opening a window and looking out.

Research shows that our nervous system relaxation response is activated when we’re in connection with nature. That is one thing that can really help balance that anxiety or depression that you might be feeling.

Also, getting out into forest-based environments is something I highly recommend for nervous system regulation. It’s called forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku.

Anything that grounds your sensory experience is healthy. Take your shoes off and feel the grass beneath your feet. Deep breathing. That’s another thing that is great for your nervous system. And I would say something pretty simple too is remembering that normalizing and validating your feelings is also very healthy. It’s okay to feel anxious about the climate. It’s normal.

We tend to pathologize it as a society, I think. So just normalize and validate it for yourself. Taking care of yourself is very important, too, because if you don’t take care of yourself first, you will be in a dysregulated state. You’re not going to be able to do much from there.

Joanna Macy’s work has been healing for many of my clients and me. She’s an environmental activist and helps activists figure out how to care without shutting down and how to remain a lifelong activist without falling into mental health pitfalls.

Has that sense of simultaneous care and helplessness been something you’ve seen more of recently?

Yes, I would say so. There have been a lot more climate trauma events at the global level. And because we have greater access to the stories than we’ve ever had before in history, people are inundated with tragic information. People who come to see me and are distressed about climatechange are also the ones that care the most. They do care about what’s happening. People who don’t care about something don’t often get distressed.

So when people come to me with these issues, we like to reframe the issue by saying it’s a sign that you care, that you love the Earth, and that you’re here and distressed about these things.

That can be healing for a person.

Presumably, if there are people who are coming to see you with these issues, a massive number of people who aren’t coming to see you have the same feelings but are also trapped by the stigma of therapy.

It only takes one person to normalize therapy. And yeah, many people are struggling who won’t see a therapist or get any help because of the stigma. Some people lack the resources because therapy costs money. And that only adds to their distress. I think many people genuinely don’t know that a therapist would be able to help them.

A therapist can’t make climate change go away, but we can and will hold space for you so you can coexist and find meaning in your life.

When people come to see you, do they always understand the exact issue affecting them and how it could be to do with ecology?

Often people don’t know. Sometimes they do. As therapists, we ask a lot of questions and remain curious. And if certain current events are happening in the world, I might ask, bluntly, ‘you’re saying that you’re feeling stressed, anxious, all of a sudden? How has the recent abortion legislation or climate change been affecting you?’ And they may say it hasn’t affected them at all, depending on their values. Whatever the answer, I’ll unpack that and find out what we can do. So we ask questions to help find out where the issue stems from. Is it a global issue? Is it something in ecology? Is it something more personal? A lot of times, it’s both.

It seems anxiety has affected a lot of people over the last two years. You touched on this, but do anxiety and climate change conjoin and contribute to creating other types of anxiety?

They do. The more stressors one person holds, the more the next one will probably compound the current anxiety, grief, or depression level. So it’s important to hold space for whatever you’re feeling so that the next stressor doesn’t send you into shutdown or panic mode.

I’ve felt that myself in the past before I found a therapist. One tiny thing would have a cascading effect on me. It was terrifying at the time but fascinating to reflect on.

It’s hard when you don’t know. If you haven’t been made aware that, say, climate change, or these images of deforestation, are affecting you, you can feel even more chaotic, helpless and scared.

You don’t know why you feel that way because you don’t know it’s valid to feel that way.

If you want to contact a climate-aware therapist, check out this handy map.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress | charress@reckonmedia.com

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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