More than two-thirds of Americans experience climate anxiety, according to a 2022 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association. Somatic therapy might be a way to address our collective dysregulated nervous systems.
In an era where the environment is changing rapidly and at least 80 percent of the world’s land mass has already been impacted by climate change, it’s expected, that our bodies are struggling to adapt.
Developmental adjustment to changes in our environment is a normal, genetic response by the body to adapt to our immediate reality, like changing weather patterns.
Anxiety itself is a physiological manifestation of our body’s perceived threat to our sense of well-being or survival. It’s only natural that, of the United States’ 332 million population, at least 221 million people are experiencing some form of climate anxiety due to climate change.
Healing the nervous system
Somatic therapy is a form of alternative therapy that aims to address the biological and physiological impacts of trauma and stress-related disorders like anxiety or depression.
It is a treatment method centered around regulating the body’s nervous system and rewiring our brain into a sense and state of safety, rather than survival or ‘flight or fight.’ Through “accessing physical sensations, imagery or motor patterns, with less emphasis on thinking or emotional processes,” according to the Trauma Counseling Center of Los Angeles’ website.
Caroline Contillo is a Buddhist meditation teacher, climate organizer, and social worker who specializes in somatic healing.
Her research shows how climate change is impacting the body in acute ways that might go unnoticed by many, manifesting in an underlying sense of anxiety that they might not know how to deal with.
“A lot of places are experiencing acute disasters; in some places, it’s like the seasons are starting a little bit later and that can be perceived by the body as okay, something is wrong,” said Contillo.
“When we’re in that survival state, we perceive things differently. I think that’s some of what is interesting to me about the way we talk about climate change; what’s conscious for us can be different from what’s happening at the level of the body.”
Implementing new behaviors
Folks diagnosed with PTSD saw a reversal of 44.1 percent in their diagnoses and symptoms over the course of just 15 weekly 1-hour somatic therapy sessions, one study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress showed.
The usefulness of implementing somatic healing practices and behaviors — which can be more accessible than traditional talk therapy for many — to treat climate anxiety is evident.
Traditional forms of therapy, like cognitive (CBT) or dialectical (DBT) behavioral therapy, often present a plethora of barriers to accessing care, especially for those who don’t have insurance, money, or time.
Finding a culturally-competent practitioner, for example — one who understands the complexities of things like race, class, and gender and how they might inform one’s mental health or relationship to the medical field entirely — can also make it difficult for many, especially those of marginalized identities, to find adequate care.
She says that’s why climate organizing spaces need to be safe spaces where folks’ nervous systems can relax, rather than becoming more dysregulated due to climate anxiety and dread.
“Having groups where you can process [emotions] and collectively put some language to it, is important,” said Contillo.
“Sometimes we have the intention of coming together, figuring out a [climate] strategy and solutions, but what happens is people have so much grief and pain that they’re bringing to this work, that if we don’t open with something embodied and grounding and some intention to hold that space for each other, we risk just dysregulating each other.”
Somatic healing practices can be introduced to an individual no matter what stage of their healing they are in.
And, you don’t necessarily have to work with a practitioner to reap the benefits; movement, meditation, and identifying resources in our environment that bring us safety are all examples of somatically therapeutic practices that individuals can implement at home.
“Slowing down, and [then] slowing down even more,” Contillo says, is the first step in addressing any unpleasant feelings that might be presenting themselves.
For many of us, our body’s first hint to us that feelings of anxiety are brewing is a feeling of activation, where we might suddenly feel like our breath or thoughts are moving a million miles per hour.
Slowing down, both in life and in the immediate moment of activation, helps to bring a greater sense of peace and safety to our nervous system.
She recommends developing a “social cues of safety” kit of tools you can turn to when anxiety around climate change begins to come up.
Laying down on the floor, creating a relaxing and reassuring music playlist to listen to, or rubbing your hands together are some examples of tools that Caroline said have worked for her.
“Each person is going to have their version of accessing that feeling. And we might overlook some of these [tools] because it’s like, well how helpful can that be when we’re talking about climate change, this huge existential threat?” said Contillo. “But, over time it’s so healing to have those things to go to in those moments when the nervous system is snowballing towards a panic attack.”
Trusting the process
Like with any behavioral change, learning to recognize when your nervous system is dysregulated and training yourself to reach for the tools that might bring you back to a sense of safety, is a process, especially if you’ve experienced a lot of trauma that makes it harder for your body to exist in a state of rest.
“It may be that you’ve had a life experience that leads to more dysregulation when you become aware of your body. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do the feeling work.”
Remembering that climate anxiety is something that is being experienced by many and that you’re not alone in the fight is another way to deal with these emotions.
“We’re living in a society that does not want you to be embodied,” said Contillo. “So be kind to yourself about the ways that you have had to survive.”
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