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Our Environment, Ourselves: Where Climate Change and Relational Trauma Meet

Heather Pierce, MSEd, LCPC

Owner and Managing Director

Trauma Therapist and Consultant

April hosts Sexual Assault Awareness month, Child Abuse Prevention month, and Earth Day. Harm done to humans and damage inflicted on our planet have much in common—they both have individual and far-reaching effects, impacting our humanity and our community.

As a trauma therapist working with people who have experienced abuse and neglect, I witness devastating human impacts with different outcomes but similar causes to those contributing to climate change. People harm each other through their own hurt, trauma, greed, power, apathy, and failures of courage. Much as we hold these wounds in our body and mind, we absorb the impact of our environment no matter where we are.

The most hopeful outcome of this hurt would be that we could use these experiences to more fully care for ourselves, be a light to others, and deepen our empathy for humanity and respect for our surroundings. Understanding the ways that relational trauma and climate change are connected would help increase our awareness of the impact we have on each other and the world we live in.

These are just a few of the similarities:

  • Safety in our bodies, safety in our environment Our sense of safety and bodily autonomy is a fundamental loss when we are not safe in our relationships, our families, our homes. Whether it is the threat of victimization or encroaching flood or fire, a feeling of impending doom undermines our equilibrium and deprives us of peacefulness and calm.

  • Not knowing if we will be OK Humans (especially our littlest ones) need stability and predictably in their environment to regulate emotions and safely explore vulnerability, identity, and authenticity. Uncertainty in our surroundings, whether from inconsistent and harmful sources of love or uncontrollable acts of nature, requires that we defend against the impact of unknowns rather than boldly embrace our humanity.

  • Compromised trust in ourselves and in our surroundings Along with our sense of safety, trust in ourselves is robbed by abuse and betrayal. Similarly, when the things we used to take for granted—the summers, winters, ubiquitous water, flora, and fauna—change before our eyes, this compromises a long-held trust in our sense of place.

  • Helplessness and hopelessness The greatest impact of trauma often comes from feeling helplessness and a lack of agency. Hopelessness accompanies this when we believe that things can’t or won’t change, and we are powerless to make a difference. This feeling of overwhelm is true for children in abusive homes and also in imagining of our ability to combat the impact of pervasive climate change.

  • Slow and difficult to repair “Trauma brain” wants to speed up in a desire to avoid or defend against threats to the self and damage that is so impulsively perpetrated. In stark contrast, the work of healing relational trauma and our environment is slow and steady. It can seem a great injustice that what was so easily inflicted is so difficult to repair, or that we may never be the same again.

  • Grief and loss All of the above can leave us with a profound sense of grief and loss: the sadness of the harm that was done to us, and the loss of our potential to be more well as individuals and as a civilization. We grieve the damage that has been done to the most beautiful places of our childhood and the most beautiful places inside of us.

  • Collective trauma and collective impact Never before have I been more aware of the interconnectivity of my life to others around the world. In that way, the pandemic has been both a tragedy and a gift. Collective trauma and collective impact have much to teach us about the “butterfly effect”—how we treat the person standing in front us, and the ground we walk on, reaches far and wide.

Perhaps the most hopeful of the similarities between the human spirit and our natural environment is adaptability and resiliency. Whether you embrace it or resist it, foundational change is almost always accompanied by pain, loss, transformation, and opportunity. We have the opportunity to recognize and honor our individual and our shared humanity, accepting and embracing our interdependence and interconnectedness.

People impacted by all forms of human trauma know better than anyone the deep and lasting harm that is experienced. Through growth, healing, and foundational change they are also living examples of self-love and courageousness. Like the environment, trauma survivors can be at the same time fragile and stable, sensitive and strong.

When we turn our focus to increasing awareness of the impact of victimization and neglect in all forms, it requires us to hold both devastation and hopefulness, inextricably linked by how we treat ourselves, each other, and the environment that surrounds us.

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