Cross-posted from The Skywriter — 1Sky’s Blog.

I have spent my lifetime face to face with some of the most brutal and inhumane acts ever committed, but nothing has been as traumatizing for me as trying to get action to tackle the climate crisis.

As a long time human rights defender and prior Executive Director at WITNESS, I helped produce and direct films on rape as a weapon of war and amputations in Sierra Leone’s recent bloody conflict, I conducted an undercover investigation into the Russian mafia’s involvement in trafficking women for forced prostitution, I investigated hit squads in apartheid South Africa, and I spent countless hours in editing rooms watching first hand images of death, destruction, and devastation.

But spending my days and nights trying to get our country to tackle global warming is more emotionally demanding than any job I have ever done.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

When I was at WITNESS, people used to say “The work you do must be so difficult. How do you manage?” to which I would respond “Well, I can see the results. And it’s not as bad as environmental work would be!” What I meant when I said that five years ago is that I felt overwhelmed by our inexorable march to “pave it all” — parking lot by parking lot, McDonald’s by Wal-Mart.

But seeing former Vice President Al Gore give his now famous slideshow at the TED conference in 2006 convinced me that nothing mattered more than tackling global warming, and that climate change had massive humanitarian and human rights consequences. There was no looking back, so in mid-2007 I leapt, knowing that I was headed straight towards my deepest fears and concerns.

As I started to immerse myself in the science and early impacts of global warming, I became increasingly distraught. But I soldiered on, hoping against hope that I would be so busy in an ambitious new start up campaign at 1Sky, and so relieved to be trying to do something about it, that I would not be overwhelmed with existential angst and despair. Looking back on the last year and a half since I started as 1Sky’s Campaign Director in the fall of 2007, my wish has generally come true. But since President Obama’s inauguration and the 2009 clock started ticking on the countdown to Copenhagen, I feel myself slipping. And I know I am not alone.

So when Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist and co-conveyor of last month’s conference at the National Wildlife Federation on the Psychological Aspects of Climate Change asked me to videotape an interview (part 1 | part 2) with her that would be played before the heads of the American Psychiatric Association and the Centers for Disease Control, I agreed. And in spite of the fact that I found myself weeping at several points during the conversation and know it never bodes well for a woman in leadership, I let her play it during the plenary session in conference.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I did that because I believe that I and many other people around the world are suffering from “Climate Trauma.” It’s my own term. I am not a mental health professional, but I can identify plain as day the symptoms I recognize in myself and in my colleagues traumatized by our work to tackle climate change. And these symptoms are of course different from, but related to, the much deeper trauma of those who are already being directly impacted by climate change, whether through dislocation, drought, or the death of a loved one:

1. Anxiety and stress: We know we are facing a looming catastrophe of unparalleled proportions — a truly existential crisis in that scientists predict that if we do not take dramatic action now, human beings will not be able to continue living on Earth as we have come to know it. This is not the place to detail the reasons or predicted impacts of climate change, but it is to say that a central motivation in pushing for climate and energy policy is our knowledge of that existential threat. And there has never been more urgency or intensity to our wish and our call, with the looming international negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 and the critical need to have demonstrated U.S. leadership before we get there. We in the U.S. are literally dizzy with work, given the pace of the congressional calendar, regulatory action, and the Obama administration more broadly. Many of us are insomniacs and obsessive workaholics.

2. Fear and hopelessness: We know we must be bold and visionary and imaginative and hopeful about all of the potential of a 21st century green economy built on wind, solar, and geothermal. All the polls and marketing specialists tell us that people will tune us out if we shriek about the fact that the sky is falling and that people want to hear about solutions. We do see a path forward — a way out of this mess we got ourselves into. But in our heart of hearts, we are fearful that the powers that be in industrial America, the votes in Congress, and the ignorance or economic plight of voters all around us, will stand in our way and we may get nothing at all, or too little too late. Will we add up? We think about our children and their future, and we weep. We tear ourselves away from them for yet another day, another night, trying to preserve something left for them to live in. Even the children are traumatized: look at what 10 year old Nikos Spiridakis produced as a wake-up call or what this young girl in Michigan says when her aunt asks her what global warming is.

3. A parallel universe: We often feel like we are living in a parallel universe. Don’t people see that we are headed straight off a cliff? How could they possibly continue to argue that there is legitimate dispute about whether or not the planet is warming? How could the ones who know that it is warming leave all their incandescent bulbs on? Leave their SUV idling? Blast the heat and open the windows? Toss their water bottle in the trash? And sit out this fight of a lifetime, this fight for our lives? We are obsessed and alone and sometimes we or our loved ones literally have to ban the topic from conversation rather than repeat ourselves again. And again. And again.

4. Depression, irritability, and anger: Flip sides of the same coin, we find ourselves alternately depressed, irritable, or angry. Who wouldn’t under the circumstances? But these symptoms only get in our way, and diminish our power to be the leaders we must be to confront the greatest challenge of our generation, and perhaps of all time in life on this precious planet we call home. We need each other — our colleagues, our teams, and the people who love us — to keep on keeping on.

When Dr. Spencer Eth, a respected forensic psychiatrist, saw the interview I did with Dr. Van Susteren at the conference, he wrote a short article on “Climate Warriors and Emotional Burnout.” He wrote:

The mission of a ‘climate warrior’ is demanding and may become self-sacrificing. The activist must articulate terrible truths about the coming ecological catastrophes. Indeed, future scenarios may approximate what psychiatrist Robert Lifton described as a death imprint — the indelible images of the grotesque that the person cannot assimilate.

Dr. Van Susteren followed up with some advice on how to sustain ourselves.

And so, we find ourselves “surfing the apocalypse,” as my friend Gary Cohen from Health Care Without Harm would say. We know that this crisis is an opportunity to reinvent the way we are living our lives, and to steer this troubled ship called Earth towards safer harbor. In our despair, we must surface all our passion and commitment and power to ensure that we come together as an unstoppable force for change, turning the tide back in the right direction, and lifting all boats.

Climate trauma survival tips from Dr. Lise Van Susteren

  • Take care of yourself physically and spiritually, through healthy living and maintaining a balance in your professional and personal life.
  • Physical exercise is essential — endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers, are secreted in response to exercise. Endorphins help fight psychic pain, too. Exercise also boosts your immune system. If you are stressed out and getting sick a lot — you need regular exercise. Swimming can be very soothing.
  • Get out of doors as much as possible — connect with the forces that drive you and give yourself up to the beauty of nature in the present. Your energy to continue the battle will be rejuvenated.
  • Remember that you are not alone. There are lots of other people who may be just as traumatized as you are — they just aren’t talking about it. Some people are distracted by jobs that don’t constantly expose them to the realities. Unlike you, they can get away from it for a while.
  • Diversify your work and your life: force yourself to participate in activities not related to climate.
  • Reinforce boundaries between professional work and personal life. It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home where the problems are petty by comparison. If you haven’t found another solution: Take 10 minutes, close your eyes, shut your brain down. If you don’t know how, Google “How to meditate.”
  • Connect with your fellow climate warriors: Gather — Play games, dance, tell jokes. There is nothing like a laugh. Don’t talk about climate!
  • Your fears are realistic. But what you can do, or what you expect you can do, may not be.
  • Personal therapy can help. You wouldn’t be the first person to conflate some personal problems with what is happening to the planet. Although “we” are working on it, many professionals may not yet “get” the problem with climate.

The don’ts

  • Overwork
  • Having trouble sleeping? Avoid climate related work at night. Make sure to cut off the computer at least 2 hours before bedtime. The blue light emitted by computers suppresses a hormone that triggers sleep more than light from other parts of the spectrum. Additionally, turning out lights is not only good for the planet — the resulting incremental darkness sets the body up to sleep. Also, did you know that it can take as many as 9 hours for your body to completely break down caffeine?
  • Believe that you are invulnerable. In fact, admitting what you are going through makes you more resilient.
  • Ignore signs and symptoms of burnout. Like an overused muscle — without some kind of rest or intervention burnout will only get worse.
  • Forget that understanding the material does not require that you actually experience what is being spoken about.
  • Lose focus on the essential tasks.
  • Don’t give up! Despite the forecast — we are working together like never before.