When the Climate Emergency & Childhood Trauma Collide
I grew up in a fundamentalist religious family who fervently believed that the “End Times” were near. Propaganda which was terrifying for a child (such as the move A Thief in the Night) and warnings and admonitions from our church leaders – and in my case, from my parents, since my dad was one of our church ministers – were a regular part of my upbringing. As a result, I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence in a chronic state of terror about the imminent end of the world. With age, my intellectual doubt about the contradictory claims of our church’s doctrine grew to virtual rejection of it, but the fear was still wired into my neurons and soma. When I left religion in my early twenties and finally had access to other thought systems, I was existentially, intellectually and somatically relieved to not have to live under that constant threat. With support from therapists and coaches, I started to heal the trauma I had incurred from feeling chronically unsafe in the world, and life started to seem much more open-ended and hopeful.
That was in the early 2000’s, and the discussion on climate change was already well-underway. But recovering from religious abuse and other trauma still took up so much of my mental space that the climate question took more of a background place in my life. Additionally, part of the result of having grown up in my fundamentalist religious world was that I didn’t understand a lot about the way the secular world actually worked. When I first learned about climate change, I believed that specialists on the question would work together with government in order to make the necessary changes – after all, who on earth would ignore such an important problem, if they had the power to change it?
Over the years, as I came to realize that our leaders were for the most part not responding to the specialists’ pleas for change, I started to feel increasingly uneasy about the situation. If I couldn’t trust the leaders, who could I trust? That triggered old traumas about my own childhood leaders regularly making choices that hurt me and made my future very difficult. Additionally, as “climate change” has become “climate emergency”, I have found myself feeling more and more as though it were once again 1990, and I was once again living in a chronic state of terror about “the end of the world”.
By now, having been a psychologist for nearly two decades, I’m well aware of when I’m experiencing dissociation, fight, flight, freeze or fawn from trauma triggering. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, I have an ACE score of five and am all too familiar with complex trauma and the four f’s. Finding myself this time as an adult in a full state of dissociation and freeze in relationship to harmful leadership practices and the “imminent end of the world”, I was completely overwhelmed. I didn’t want to go back to remember nor to grieve the fact that I had spent over twenty years of my life in a state of constant ambient terror and with so little control over the decisions that were being made on my behalf by the people in power. I found myself thinking in a trauma-triggered loop, “It’s not fair that I should have to live my whole life feeling terrorized that the end of the world is near” and “It’s not fair that people in power can’t be trusted”.
And even if I had not been terrorized by a false threat when I was a kid, I love the Earth and I want to see it thrive; and I want to feel good about humanity. As I’ve watched the Earth undergo so much destruction on such a massive scale at human hands, I have felt so much grief. This very real present-moment grief was compounded by my past-trauma triggering frozen state. I wondered how I could process my current feelings now, while being so overwhelmed by feelings from my past. And how could I find a way to take constructive action in the face of the present threat when I was in so much personal pain. It seemed impossible until I learned that ecological grief is a real thing, and that like me, many people are feeling it and are completely unsure of how to handle it.
Additionally, I specialize in working with gifted people, and many of them have told me that – like me – they’ve been struggling with the fact that there’s no amount of applying their uncommon smarts which will solve this emergency once and for all. It is so vast and so overpowering. For many of us, that feeling triggers other traumatic memories from childhood: times when no matter how much we tried to use our fast minds to resolve agonizing family or cultural or other social dysfunctions, we were just kids and didn’t have enough resources, strength, social support or lived wisdom to be able to make a big enough difference to really change our fate. The helplessness we felt then can be reactivated and compounded by our feelings of helplessness now.
And then, there’s the problem of “emergency” – in the current situation, it feels we’re running out of time fast, and that adds a very real layer of distress to the issue. Over the past year, I have often heard myself thinking: “This is an emergency. I don’t have time to heal from trauma and to grieve!”. But having recovered from enough of my developmental trauma and having grieved enough losses over the last two decades, I knew there was no way to pressure myself into having a solution both for the world and for myself today. So I did what I’ve learned works best – I looked at the situation in a non-dualistic way: yes, the climate emergency was threatening my life as I knew it, and yes I needed to – once again – work through more layers of trauma and very real grief. This was my full, complex reality, and I tried to welcome it as best I could. I started researching ecological grief, having long talks with my husband and friends about it, and asking others how they were handling their feelings; I booked therapy and bodywork sessions, had regular massages, and went to the doctor about the stress-related health issues coming out of my triggered, frozen state. Answers came, and while I wished they would come faster, I comforted myself knowing I was doing my very best. Most of that time, it felt like the grief and traumatic triggering would never subside. I went about my life and enjoyed many moments, but the pain hung around like a heavy storm cloud. I didn’t push it away, but I wondered if this would be my new normal and if I would die in a state of profound personal pain and ecological grief.
A Compassionate Breakthrough
Then, in InterGifted’s Creatives group, our group leader Merlin Györy guided us in a group exercise in which we put our feelings on an important matter into a piece of original art. I made the piece you see above. It was just a very rough sketch of hard, but sincere feelings: me sitting in the ocean with all the plastic that now ubiquitously lives there, while meditating and sending compassion out to the oceans and the rest of the Earth suffering with it.
Sharing this piece with our group was a real breakthrough for me, as it acknowledged something important: I wasn’t powerless, even in my state of freeze and grief. I was connected to the world through my compassion for it, and that meant that just by feeling the compassion, I was doing something positive for the world. Yeah, but what good is that? a skeptical part of me countered, but I ignored the voice. I knew from my years of mindfulness practice that our compassion makes a big difference in situations where it seems that no difference can be made. It opens up connections and entrains energy fields, even when circumstances appear immovable, and inspires and motivates even when action feels impossible. I also knew that it leads to increasing returns, as it builds over time. Maybe my compassion itself wouldn’t heal the world and reverse climate change, but it would have positive reverberating effects on me as well as on the people with whom I was engaging on this topic, and that meant something to me.
As I reconnected with that compassion, I started to feel more connected to the Earth as a present-moment friend, rather than as a representation of a dying entity “out there”. That led to many healing conversations, meditations, and new connections with nature (such as the reading of a wonderful book called How Forests Think, by Eduardo Kohn). As those feelings sunk into my psyche and soma, I felt a growing desire to engage with a wider audience on this topic, but where to start? Activism? Arguing with skeptics? Posting pictures of endangered animals on social media? Those options, while valuable in their own right, didn’t feel like they matched the full scope of my own passions or particular urge for engagement and contribution. But when I tried to ask myself what did match my passions, desires and mission, I couldn’t find a good alternative. That was hard, because it meant I was again, to a lesser degree, frozen. I felt the pressure of “the ticking clock” kick in strong again, and following my previously-gained wisdom, I actively sent compassion to the part of myself who didn’t know yet.
Over the next weeks and months, this non-rushed self-compassion melted into personal healing on many levels, resulting in a more complete “thawing” from the freeze. It kept sending me the message that I am just human; that I can only do what I’m able to do; that I may be gifted, I may have a fast brain, I may be powerful in some ways – but I’m still just human. That I didn’t single-handedly create this emergency, didn’t choose to be born into a context of ambient terror which would be reactivated by the current situation, and didn’t create my body and how it as a biological system reacts to – and needs time to heal from – trauma. Finally, as I felt completely embraced by this “it’s okay to be human” context, I felt safe – not safe from the emergency, not safe from world destruction, but safe within my own self.
Finding Your Unique Role
It was this safety within myself feeling-context that gave rise to finding (at least the start of) my own unique role in this collective task. With my friends and within InterGifted, I started to explore creative, constructive and compassion-driven ways of contributing to the collective response to our ecological emergency. I discovered people who are creating games, art, and literature for education and awareness-raising. I saw Greta Thunberg daring to reject “business as usual” and creating a new path for collective constructive action. I found a fellow therapist, Margaret Klein Salamon, who is leading a strong, psychologically- and trauma-informed movement to help people transform themselves individually and respond collectively. These and many other inspirations – as well as many meditative explorations with my friend and collaborator Karin Eglinton – helped me to identify more clearly where I felt my own passions guiding me to contribute in this emergency.
An important element for me is shining a light on those of us who find ourselves triggered and in a state of dissociation or freeze, due to the emergency. I have talked to many other people who, as children, went through similar experiences as I did, some because of religion, some because of threat of nuclear war, and some simply by observing the greed and exploitation practiced toward the Earth and humanity. For those of us whose childhood terror was very real, our current feelings are compounded and complexified by our past; that is a normal response and is worth taking the time to work through. Another important element for me is normalizing ecological grief and the need for guidance and safe contexts to get through it (especially for gifted people, as it fits into the scope of my professional specialty). Finally, while I do not feel that my collective place in this is at a local march or fighting legislators at this time, I do feel that it is in the collective where we can gather together in the cultivation of gratitude, love, compassion and very real human support for the Earth and those who are boldly protecting and defending it. Not finding a similar initiative elsewhere, I have created one with Karin Eglinton: I Heart Earth (more on this below).
If you haven’t already found your own unique contribution and role in our collective task, perhaps you need the space, time, compassion and necessary support to deal with your very real and very human feelings of grief and terror. Coming out of the freeze can be extremely hard work, but when we allow ourselves to do it and have the adequate support, we start to find space for the arising of what personally excites and inspires each of us. At some point in the process of your healing, you find new questions emerging in your mind: What am I passionate about? What have I always done to help others or to make a contribution? How can I apply that passion now, even in small ways? What would give me joy in contributing to the global response to the emergency? How do I want to connect with and support others in this crisis?
This process doesn’t happen overnight, but with the right support and given enough time, space and compassion, I believe we can all (re)connect to our unique passions and roles in this collective mission. We can get to the place where we are not responding only of fear, but are able to access and act out of our personal passion, solidarity with our fellow humans, and love for the Earth. One of my best gifts in this retraumatizing-healing-reconnecting-finding-my-unique-role journey has been the connections that have formed as I have banded together with my friends to make our way through this personal and collective emergency. There is incredible power and collective meaning formed when a group of people join together to make a positive difference in a critical situation, and I have experienced that we can even find a good measure of collective joy in working together for the common good!
When you feel you are ready to band together with us to apply your own personal passion to our collective efforts, we welcome you to join us this year in a series of events InterGifted will be hosting (specifically for gifted people) and via our global initiative, I Heart Earth: Meditations of Compassion and Gratitude for the Earth and its Defenders and Protectors (open to everyone). I Heart Earth will lead a once a week shared global meditation and you can participate with us wherever you are in the world; we will also have talks and literature for the development of compassion, gratitude, love and passion in each of our lives and as a collective in responding to the emergency.
If you are in the freeze, there are ways to encourage safety and to come out of dissociation and paralysis: talk and somatic therapy, group support, self-education, and self-compassion are wonderful ways to actively engage in helping yourself work through trauma. Additionally, coming out to your friends and family about how you feel, if it is safe to do so, can be a very important step. Often, even the closest people to us don’t know what we’re going through inside, and with these complex and sensitive issues, they will likely never guess unless we tell them. In order to get the full support you need, you must speak up. If you need professional support during this time, I invite you to reach out to my network of coaches, mentors and therapists. If you are gifted, we can support you directly; if you are not gifted, we are happy to help you locate the right support professional for you. Learn more and get that process started here.
We look forward to joining compassionate forces with you!
Recommended additional reading:
- Learn more about Emergency Psychology from psychologist and founding director or The Climate Mobilization, Margaret Klein Salamon: Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: Introducing the Climate Emergency Movement and Transforming Yourself through Climate Truth