The days follow one another and have looked the same for weeks. The sun is scorching, the air stifling and the raindrops (almost) absent. As the heat waves follow one another and the drought makes the soils and lakes thirsty, some of us are won over by eco-anxiety. From a form of anxiety to an immobilizing anguish, this suffering focuses on the state of the planet. Antoine Pelissolo analyzed it, among other objects, in the book The emotions of climate change (Flammarion, 2021), in which he also provides solutions. The French professor, head of the psychiatry department at the CHU Henri Mondor in Créteil (Ile-de-France, France), answers our questions.
Le Temps: Switzerland experienced a third heat wave this week. What are the effects of the heat wave on our brain, from a physiological point of view?
Antoine Pelissolo: There are direct effects of rising temperature on our nervous system. For example, it is observed in some of the cognitive disorders linked to high temperatures, such as mental confusion and the decompensation of psychiatric disorders (schizophrenia, suicide attempts, etc.). Data show an aggravation of conduct disorders, acting out (violence, aggression). The most fragile or the people undergoing treatment are most at risk of being victims of these problems related to the heat itself.
What are its effects on our mental health on the other hand, from a psychic point of view?
Extreme climatic episodes have an impact on our emotions, on a psychological level. The first shock is due to the direct confrontation with the dramatic events: the strong heat in what it represents for humans. Then the second time arrives in anticipation of the “trauma”. Everything is mixed up: we are afraid that the event will repeat itself, there is anger, even a form of despair, the guilt of not doing enough to change things. Eco-anxiety can range from “just” worry to a paralyzing state for the person.
Do you think the summer of 2022 represents a tipping point when it comes to eco-anxiety?
In recent years, we have seen that every year, after the summer, people have an awareness linked to climate change that they had not had before. They are mostly young people, because they themselves feel involved. Older generations are more affected today, as extreme weather events increase in frequency and move closer geographically to us. Probably this awareness will continue to spread and at some point affect everyone. Those who were still indifferent or in denial can hardly remain so today. It’s human nature to feel concerned when we see that things can actually affect us and put us in danger. Distant things are put at a distance.
Does media coverage influence the formation of negative climate-related emotions?
The media always walks on a tight wire. It is necessary at all costs to be transparent about the reality, even if the speech may seem repetitive. Ideally, the media should accompany the exposure of the facts with an analysis and get closer to solutions or approaches to change. This will avoid a form of fatigue. However, it is still important to inform, even if it makes people anxious. We can’t hide things to protect everyone. On the other hand, they can be accompanied by a positive discourse. And the medical profession is present to offer psychological support.
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45% of young people say that eco-anxiety affects their daily life, 75% consider the future “scary” and 56% that “humanity is doomed”, according to a study appeared in The Lancet Planetary Health in December 2021. How do the emotions of climate change weigh or will weigh, in your opinion, on the training or the professional future of these young people?
It is difficult to say in a macro dimension, but we hear in the speeches of many young people a questioning of certain professional perspectives. They want to align their life choices with climate-related imperatives. This is not a generality, but many of the young people we see in consultation are doing everything to choose a job that has the least impact possible, even protective, for the planet. They want to act themselves, to be less passive or less guilty, each in their own way. It is vital for some to tell themselves that by getting up in the morning, they will help to turn things around in the good direction rather than in the bad.
Your book presents solutions. Which?
On an individual level, they join stress management techniques: relaxation, meditation, tools that allow you to disconnect from external pressure not to be in denial, but to take care of yourself. It is associated with physical activities. For anxieties specifically linked to climate change, it is good to focus on what you can do in contact with nature or close to it. Finally, do not hesitate to consult if there is an additional need.
On the collective level, it is good to commit at one’s own level, without excessive pressure, in an association or in any other appropriate direction. This allows you to feel useful, to get out of passivity and guilt, even to think about how to adapt your way of life to your concerns. Otherwise there is a risk of cognitive dissonance.
Action is part of the advice to get out of rumination. But militant fatigue or even exhaustion can also await those who have been involved for a long time. What are the symptoms?
It is often a mixture of exhaustion and discouragement in the sense of loss of hope, which can be followed by depression, a broad psychological disorder. Either these people are permanently invaded and have no more valves to lower the pressure, which is an endless process because they will never have the expected result in an exhaustive way in terms of climate. Either they get discouraged because they tell themselves they will never get there.
How to get out of these two loops?
They have to agree airlocks for decompression and disconnection. Sharing the word, concern and action with other people can be very helpful, unless everyone is ruminating the same way. You have to be careful not to train in a negative spiral.
Read also: How to help young people overcome their eco-anxiety
You co-wrote the book with Célie Massini, a young psychiatric intern. How to overcome, between generations, the mutual incomprehension that can emerge around the climate issue?
It should be remembered that at the start, the most ecological people we have known are now elderly. There are in all generations. Evolution comes from exchanges. They must not be unidirectional, nor the place of a fight of dogmas or a balance of power. Starting from the human scale can be beneficial, to ultimately show that we are all concerned: say what we live and feel and listen to what the other lives and feels.
In a global perspective that goes beyond the single climate issue, some historians are currently making themselves heard to remind us that humanity has never been so prosperous. Why, in your opinion, are we “wired” not to take this state of affairs into account?
This is understandable by the fact that everyone, to their own extent, has no, or less than before, a means of comparison with the past. At issue: we have probably lost historical culture. The bad side of this is that you risk losing everything because you don’t do what is necessary to preserve what you have obtained. However, this reflection has several stages and requires the perspective that we have perhaps less today, in the era of immediacy. We have less access to the memory of the oldest and less connection with them, too.