Fern

Climate Character Psychology

In collaboration with Dr. Britt Wray

In this article

Soft denial/disavowal
Anxiety
Grief
Uncertainty
Acute and chronic trauma
Compounding trauma
Negative self-talk
Bottling it up
The flip side?

So many Americans have this unformulated anxiety about climate change—and it's making everybody feel miserable and like they're going crazy. Once you articulate it, then people start to feel better about it and they can get to a place where they can problem solve, where they can affect change. That's something TV and film can really help with—articulating that unformulated anxiety.

Sarah Treem, writer and showrunner, The Affair

The climate crisis directly taps into people’s suffering and even (if, say, they start taking action) their joy—the things a good story is made of. Turns out, the scale and severity of the issue, along with its ever-creeping advance, provoke a lot of intense emotions. The most common is called climate anxiety or eco-anxiety—and when we say common, we mean that in 2019, there was a 4,290 percent increase in use of “eco-anxiety” compared to the year before, and in 2021, there was a 565 percent increase in online searches for the phrase “climate anxiety.” So: more common every day, by orders of magnitude. You’ve likely felt some version of this anxiety yourself, and maybe that’s why you’re here: to do what writers do with bad feelings, i.e. explode them onto the page.

Your characters (and your audience, and you) are living in a world of climate change, whether we like it or not. Whatever story you write, portraying or considering the psychological toll of this reality is an essential part of making it authentic and honest. So as you get to know your characters’ psyches, how do you factor in these difficult feelings? This section offers some ways to think about how climate change might impact their mental well-being.

Soft denial/disavowal

When Samantha gets breast cancer on Sex and the City, Carrie doesn’t outright refuse to believe it. Instead, she keeps denying even the possibility that the cancer might resist treatment. Samantha finally has to ask Carrie outright to stop saying things will be fine and let her “talk about what [she’s] afraid of.”

This is not only yet another reason we should all be more like Samantha, but also a great example of “soft denial”: turning away from a crisis in order to protect ourselves from the anxiety and pain of confronting it. It describes what it’s like to both know something and not know it at the same time—to have one eye open to the truth and the other closed.

Soft denial is one of the most common reactions to eco-anxiety and climate distress. We might intellectually acknowledge the climate crisis, feel pangs of terror for our kids that ebb and flow, maybe even break down crying because we understand the devastation and that the odds aren’t good—but then we don’t act, and go on living our lives just as before. This is an understandable response—it doesn’t mean that we are apathetic or disdainful, it most often means we are overwhelmed or afraid.1

This is especially common among populations that don’t have an ingrained history of resilience stemming from relentless persecution. As climate anxiety and resilience expert Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray says, “People who [have] been insulated from oppression are now waking up to the prospect of their own unlivable future.” And that prompts the very natural response of looking away.

1

Lertzman, Renee. Environmental melancholia: Psychoanalytic dimensions of engagement. Routledge, 2015

Story Seed

Two bosom buddies in their seventies have always been in step and understood each other when no one else did. But these 65ºF January days in Boston have one of them freaking out. When she expresses her climate anxiety, her friend says it’s just an unseasonably warm spell, a blip, it’ll be fine, things always are. On their annual ski trip—temps soaring, snow slushy—both friends can feel the rift forming between them . . .

Anxiety

Climate anxiety is not a pathology or mental disorder.2 We repeat: there is nothing “wrong” with a person who experiences it.

Rather, this type of distress is a super reasonable response to an unfolding global threat of unprecedented scale—just like the anxiety people felt as a global pandemic unfolded.

As writers, we have to recognize just how widespread these feelings are. Young people feel them especially hard. A 2021 Lancet survey found that almost 40 percent of people aged 16–25 are hesitant to have kids because of the climate crisis, and more than 50 percent felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty when contemplating the future. We see this portrayed in Big Little Lies, when second grader Amabella learns about climate change in class and promptly passes out from a panic attack—a potent depiction of how climate anxiety affects young people’s lives IRL.

Anxiety pushes us out of what’s called our “window of tolerance”—the optimal zone in which life feels like smooth sailing. Inside this window, we have contact with the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that enables us to complete complex cognitive functions like judge the future and make decisions in the present. But when our nervous system is on overdrive, we lose contact with this part of the brain.3

This causes us to react, rather than respond. We saw these fear reactions during the pandemic, when people started hoarding. Paul Schrader’s film First Reformed is a heart-wrenching portrait of climate anxiety that turns into a harmful depression. But many of us can recognize our anxiety and cultivate a good relationship with it. (See our Self-Care Tips if you need help with that.)

Climate anxiety is a sign of your connection to what’s happening to the world. The goal is not to “beat it back” or overcome it. Instead, your characters can learn to cope with it—and then take action on the very real danger the anxiety is pointing to.

2

Hickman, Caroline, et al. "Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey." The Lancet Planetary Health 5.12 (2021): e863-e873

3

Siegel, Daniel J. The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. Guilford Press, 1999

Story Seed

A struggling single mother gets a job as a receptionist at a climate science lab. But now every time she looks at her two kids, she thinks about all the stuff she’s hearing at work and becomes anxious about their future. She feels like a failure for not being able to trade in her old Buick for an electric vehicle, and how can she afford anything but the clearance hamburger meat?! She spirals, skips work, and doom scrolls with a box of wine, trying to figure out ways to protect them, telling herself she’s a terrible person for not doing more. That is, until bring-your-kid-to-work day. In the lab, her kids light up with curiosity and joy at all the equipment and experiments. It’s infectious—maybe there is still joy to be had.

Despair and fear are not inherently bad. Hope and optimism are not inherently good.

Dr. Britt Wray, author and climate psychology expert

Grief

If anxiety is a constant, painful hum of static in the back of the brain, grief is a profound ache.

When we lose a loved one, their absence in our life is a new circumstance that we have to grow used to over time. Those feelings are echoed in climate grief: the loss of life as we knew it. We are having to continually “relearn the world,” as we suffer the slow extinction of species, the destruction of millennia-old landscapes, and the disappearance of cultural traditions and seasons. Climate change is also full of “anticipatory grief”—we know in our bones that these losses will only escalate, we just don’t know when or how.4

Meanwhile, many of those who will lose the most have done nothing to make any of this happen. It can be overwhelming.

Grief is the cost of loving, of being attached to something; like love, grief can’t be discarded or erased. But we don’t have to be alone in this, and “grieving skills” are learnable. There are “Good Grief” groups and even podcasts (like this one from Good Energy’s founder and friends) that are creating space to help people name the hard emotions they’re feeling about climate. And here’s the thing: unless we allow ourselves to feel these emotions, we’re going to get stuck trying to avoid them. Forward motion can start with grieving.

Maybe your character pays tribute to what they lost by creating art or volunteering. In Alexandra Kleeman’s novel Something New Under the Sun, characters write eulogies for each extinct species. Portraying characters grappling with these losses helps to give space to these feelings—and gives us a vision for creating grieving rituals around the things and places we love in real life.5

4

Cunsolo, Ashlee, and Karen Landman, eds. Mourning nature: Hope at the heart of ecological loss and grief. McGill-Queen's Press-MQUP, 2017

5

Cunsolo, Ashlee, and Neville R. Ellis. "Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss." Nature Climate Change 8.4 (2018): 275-281

Story Seed

The ice upon which an Inuit village has thrived for thousands of years is now rapidly thinning. One November morning, a man travels across the ice sheet to visit a friend, just like he’s done all his life, like his mother did, and her mother. But this time, the ice cracks, and he’s lost beneath the water. The villagers hold a funeral, and it feels like a funeral for everything they’ve ever known: their lost family member, their cultural traditions and knowledge, this very ground. The changing climate feels like the old hand of colonialism taking hold again, bringing suffering for deeds done by powerful others.

Uncertainty

The climate crisis opens up a world of uncertainty. We don’t know how much temperatures will rise, how nations will act, or which staples of modern life will or won’t disappear. The thing is, our brains have evolved to dislike uncertainty. That was really helpful back in the day, when it came to making sure the area was free of tigers and other predators—our brains would keep us safe by assuming the worst. This is the root of that little phenomenon called “negativity bias.” It forced our hunter-gatherer grandparents to reach quick (even rushed) conclusions and default to over preparation rather than risk being caught unawares.6

It can be less helpful now, by making it way more comfortable to fixate on fatalistic worst-case climate scenarios—or the opposite: techno-utopianism. Whether it’s bad or good, it’s certain, and that’s what our brains are craving.7

But that just ain’t the world we’re living in. It’s not a binary—horrible hell path vs flowers and bunnies. It’s not hope vs hopelessness. Just like The Dark Knight kicked off a generation of superhero stories that explored the gray space between “heroes” and “villains,” new climate stories can depict the discomfort of uncertainty, avoiding simple binaries like happy endings vs doom and embracing that liminal space in-between. Benedikt Erlingsson’s Icelandic film Woman at War (spoiler: she’s at war against the climate crisis) does this beautifully both throughout the story and in a harrowing ending that is still full of hope and possibility.

6

Hanson, Rick, and Forrest Hanson. Resilient: How to grow an unshakable core of calm, strength, and happiness. Harmony, 2020.

7

Gen Dread interview with climate-aware therapist Leslie Davenport “A therapist’s tips for dealing with uncertainty that the climate crisis creates”

Story Seed

When a family patriarch passes away, his adult children are divided over what to do with their childhood home. One wants to renovate it and sell it for a higher price, one wants to move in with his kids, and one keeps trying to make the others understand that it’s right in the middle of a flood zone, and planning for any kind of future in that house is moot—it won’t survive the next big storm.

Acute and chronic trauma

Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and heat waves—these are just some of the disasters inflicting acute trauma on people impacted by the climate crisis. These catastrophes also come with a host of secondary effects, like resource scarcity and forced migration, which pile on to the acute traumatic response. The loss of homes, loved ones, and community cohesion can cause survivors and refugees to experience PTSD, clinical anxiety and depression, suicidality, and substance misuse.

Meanwhile, those living in areas affected by ongoing climate changes such as drought and sea level rise are at risk of chronic trauma. This includes neighborhoods without green spaces, which can become “heat islands” where crime rates go up on the hottest days, and where heat results in higher rates of hospitalizations for self-harm. Fishing communities also experience chronic trauma as rising ocean temperatures and acidity decimate their livelihoods.

And when only the privileged or connected have the ability to leave a place, the least resourced people become concentrated in the least resilient places, left to deal with worsening impacts.

Climate change is causing very real trauma right this second, and like any other kind of trauma, it can be explored, understood, and soothed through storytelling.

Story Seed

A wildfire displaces a young woman from her dream tiny home in the woods. She’s forced to temporarily move into the town’s last-standing business—a now-abandoned Dollar Tree store—along with a motley crew of neighbors. For a week, they process their collective trauma and loss, fight with NERF balls, divvy up bags of Cheetos, and promise to help each other move or rebuild.

Compounding trauma

Unsurprisingly, all of this disproportionately applies to BIPOC communities, who are far more likely to live in polluted industrial areas that lack the amenities of wealthier and whiter neighborhoods. For these communities, climate trauma compounds the omnipresent stress of dealing with racism, police violence, and intergenerational trauma from historical oppression.

When a group of people are constantly battered by not one disaster but a multitude of them, some lasting days and some lasting decades, it has a weathering effect. Living in a climate-impacted place, during a pandemic that has taken your livelihood and loved ones, while also coping with a lifetime of racism or misogyny or both—people can only withstand so much. Without any chance to rest and replenish, it becomes normal to run on empty.

But from that comes a history of resistance. As Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray puts it, “Oppressed and marginalized people have developed traditions of resilience out of necessity. Black, feminist, and Indigenous leaders have painstakingly cultivated resilience over the long arc of the fight for justice. They know that protecting joy and hope is the ultimate resistance to domination.” So when a character is suffering from compounded trauma, they may also be holding traditions and tools that make it possible to face it.

Story Seed

When their abuela is struck with heavy depression after a heat wave kills the flowers in the window box her late husband planted, which she’s always taken such good care of, her two granddaughters create a community garden on a vacant lot in the hopes of coaxing her out of bed.
Perfectionism is the enemy of climate action (and climate stories).

Negative self-talk

Afraid of being ridiculed for how she looked, Edna Turnblad of Hairspray talked herself out of leaving the house for ten years. It took her daughter and an entire musical number to welcome her into the ’60s!

Negative self-talk is a slow, toxic drip of self-degradation that ultimately does nothing more than a) bum you the hell out and b) talk you out of doing things you truly care about. It’s pretty common for people to be constantly excoriating themselves for not doing more for the climate, especially after doom scrolling. It’s, “Oh, I shouldn’t be feeling sorry for myself, there are other people who are far worse off than me.” Or, “Why don’t I just get off my ass and do something, what’s wrong with me!?” For a lot of people, this kind of self-criticism and guilt contributes to lack of action: they’re so used to feeling bad about themselves that they think nothing they do could ever be enough. So they don’t do anything.

Well, guess what? Perfectionism is the enemy of climate action (and climate stories). Starting points can be small—not massive world-fixing gestures, but the little efforts to do things in a different way.

Story Seed

An underwater welder recently lost his teenage daughter to suicide connected to her climate anxiety. He blames himself for not doing more to make her feel safe, for ignoring the science when he was younger. The climate crisis is his fault, and that’s all there is to it! He starts to spend more and more time underwater, taking more shifts, hiding. While he’s working on a seawall, an octopus starts hanging around, even when he shoos her away. The octopus starts to feel like a friend, whose constant and awe-inspiring presence helps him through his grief. He starts volunteering to restore the nearby coral reef. He can’t stop climate change or save the world, but he can help protect his friend.

Bottling it up

“There is no war in Ba Sing Se.” Yeah, right. Whether it’s global warming or a century of war with the Fire Nation in Avatar: The Last Airbender, there’s always that One Thing everybody knows about but nobody wants to discuss. It’s overwhelming and frightening, which makes it difficult to bring up in conversation without ruining the cocktail party and scaring the hell out of people. As a result, a lot of people never talk about the climate crisis: children don’t hear their parents or teachers discussing it, and when adults do mention it, they feel awkward for bringing up something that might upset colleagues or friends. “You’re fine,” they say. “We’ll be fiiiine!” People, especially young people who are often silenced or interrupted, are holding this immense existential pressure all alone, and it can get dang lonely to not be understood. It can feel like the whole world is gaslighting you, creating self-doubt. But, hey, this conversational block is a great opportunity for drama, either in its disruption or the lengths someone will go to in order to maintain it.

Story Seed

A child challenges their dad, who works at a coal plant, to explain why it hasn’t snowed this year. When they don’t get a straight answer, they start acting out—creating their own snow by covering the yard in shaving cream.
There’s growth and possibility and rebirth to be found in catastrophe.

The flip side?

The thing is, there’s a flip side to a lot of the negative emotions that come out of thinking about the climate crisis. It’s like The Good Place, where a bunch of people being tortured together actually leads to a close-knit group and a great ensemble cast.

A recent poll found that most American teens are actively afraid of climate change—and one in four is participating in some kind of action. Your characters may form connections and friendships through climate action, or they may gain a new understanding of themselves by befriending uncertainty. Maybe they talk to a friend about climate grief—like that scene in Game of Thrones where Brienne talks Jaime out of letting himself die after his hand was cut off, only with stats about renewable energy.

There’s growth and possibility and rebirth to be found in catastrophe. There are people who unite to organize climate action, there are those on the front lines who band together to help each other through. The fact that you’re even attempting to write about this is a form of resistance and power. You’re also taking agency over your mental health by giving yourself the opportunity to process it. There are many opportunities for climate action and reflection to inspire courage, pride, love, and a sense of community, alongside all the pain and sadness.

Story Seed

A woman escapes from her abusive husband by hopping on a high-speed train. Along the way she meets more people on the move: climate migrants heading up north where it’s cooler, including an old rancher who lost his granddaughter in a heat wave.
Dr. Britt Wray

✍🏻 Dr. Britt Wray is a rock star of climate psychology. Currently a Human and Planetary Health fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Britt investigates the mental health impacts of the climate crisis and their disproportionate burden on young people. Britt is the author of Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction. Her book Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis reckons with the emotional, psychological, and mental health effects of living in this unprecedented ecological crisis, and suggests forms of coping to help us create better personal and collective planetary outcomes. Britt is also the author of Gen Dread, a newsletter about “staying sane in the climate crisis” (gendread.substack.com).

Related
1

Lertzman, Renee. Environmental melancholia: Psychoanalytic dimensions of engagement. Routledge, 2015

2

Hickman, Caroline, et al. "Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey." The Lancet Planetary Health 5.12 (2021): e863-e873

3

Siegel, Daniel J. The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. Guilford Press, 1999

4

Cunsolo, Ashlee, and Karen Landman, eds. Mourning nature: Hope at the heart of ecological loss and grief. McGill-Queen's Press-MQUP, 2017

5

Cunsolo, Ashlee, and Neville R. Ellis. "Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss." Nature Climate Change 8.4 (2018): 275-281

6

Hanson, Rick, and Forrest Hanson. Resilient: How to grow an unshakable core of calm, strength, and happiness. Harmony, 2020.

7

Gen Dread interview with climate-aware therapist Leslie Davenport “A therapist’s tips for dealing with uncertainty that the climate crisis creates”

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