Climate EmergencyEnvironmentNeed for TherapyPeople

Climate Cafes for eco-anxious distressed Parts

Last summer was the first one I smelt the smoke from wildfires. I was working in my home office and got a faint whiff of smoke, followed by my annoyance that someone would be burning something in their backyard in the middle of the day. After wandering about outside for a bit, and not being able to discern where the smell was coming from, I recalled that I’d seen, on the news, about the wildfires in the adjoining province and those north from me. I looked online and saw where the fires were happening. An air quality advisory was saying we should avoid being outside and breathing the air until the winds changed and the air quality improved. I didn’t know at the time that breathing in the particles from wildfires, even so many kilometres away, could be damaging to our lungs. Such fires emit particularly large particulates.

Staying in the house I could feel my body tense. The windows were all now closed. My mind and my Parts were starting to speak. How long will this last? My country is on fire! What about the wildlife? What about taking the dogs for a walk? Is this our future? I quickly realized I wasn’t alone in these thoughts or with these Parts.

Many people are now experiencing, or starting to experience, the reality of climate change emotions. As a result, distressing emotions such as anxiety, sadness, anger and dread are leading people into therapy. This creates challenges for both patients and therapists. For patients, it’s not always the case that their emotions are normalized and accepted as reasonable responses to an issue that is both existentially terrifying, and also impacting more immediate aspects of life, such as whether or not to have children, fear for children already in the world, despair about the future, and worry about practical things like food security and the proximity of forest fires, floods, storms and droughts. Depending on the views of their therapist, these fears can be dismissed or pathologized. On the other hand, therapists may also be struggling with their own climate emotions, and feeling unprepared for, or unsure how, they ought to be responding to their clients. There are precious few trainings for therapists on how to be not only be climate-aware, but also how to work therapeutically with clients experiencing emotional responses to the climate emergency.

My desire to work in the area of climate-aware therapy led me to connect with the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America, and through them I trained to facilitate climate cafes, where people gather to express their thoughts and feelings about the global crisis without any expectation of debate, planning or action. Since then I have been running climate cafes monthly and have trained others to facilitate these groups across Canada. Listening to others express their feelings inevitably, as an IFS therapist, helped me to begin identifying some of the Parts people have that are activated by climate change.

For many, there are protective Parts that help them to continue functioning in the world through dissociation, numbness, or anger. For others, in addition to protective Parts, our more painful, exiled Parts can also be activated through feelings of powerlessness, insecurity and deep sadness. The impacts of childhood trauma can be reactivated in multiple ways by the climate-related events and predictions we see, as well as by the inaction and polarizations we see in politics at every level, from the local to the global.

Parts can hold so many climate emotions. I’ve witnessed a wide range of them in myself and others, including Parts that deny the science, those that go on with life as normal, those which/who don’t want to engage with or talk about any of it at all, and those who develop a hatred and distrust of humanity. Some Parts hold anxiety, depression, strong sadness, guilt, fear, an overwhelming sense of urgency to act or protest, to engage in spiritual bypassing to avoid pain, to question whether it’s right to have children or feel guilt or sadness for having them, and those who experience rage and anger at those who do nothing.

For some, there is a deep resonance with the suffering of nature and with nonhuman animals that can feel overwhelming, and their exiled Parts feel profound pain and angst as a result. As these Parts are activated, so too are their protective Parts, leading to a cycle of distress in their inner system.

In IFS, we work towards creating a Self to Part relationship with the intention of unburdening our Parts and increasing Self-energy. As a philosopher, I’ve been thinking a lot about my studies in environmental ethics and philosophy, which focused on the relationship between humans and nature, or the other-than-human world. In Deep Ecology, there is a focus on self-realization and self-identification with nature, and I’m seeing that our connection to nature can both open us up to being able to access our own Self-energy, and to then deepen the healing this brings to our Parts most affected by the changes we’re experiencing with our planet’s climate and the life forms that have evolved to exist in our present world. Ecopsychology and ecotherapy, combined with IFS, can provide more direct access to the healing we, and our Parts, can experience with and within nature.

As we move forward into an increasingly distressing world, with a rapidly warming climate, my hope is that we can learn to bring curiosity and compassion to all of our Parts and to approach climate emotions from a Self-led life. Within the work of therapists, IFS can provide a source of personal healing from climate distress. Thus, it can help those charged with supporting people with emotional turmoil to hold space for the Parts of clients that may be suffering.

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