Eco-trauma Resilience

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I had the opportunity to interview Sally Ludwig, MSc, RMFT on the scope of her breakout session on Eco-trauma. What you will read below is an account of our conversation.

Sharon: Sally, I wonder if you could provide the context of how eco-trauma came into your awareness?

Sally: Sure. From my colleagues at the Guelph Family Health Team, the Couple and Family Centre and my own practice, there were stories of many people coming to consult around issues of depression, anxiety, difficulties in health, etc. What began to emerge from these stories were common currents of distress which seemed to block the ability to conceive of a hopeful future. When asking clients about hope for a future, we sometimes hear responses that would portray a bleak outlook, even among folks who identify with a particular faith and often most acutely felt by younger generations. Sometimes a rueful laugh would be the first response to the question about a future.

Sharon: That sounds quite heavy. How do you understand this shift towards hopelessness?

Sally: My clinical observations and personal experiences seem to suggest that as there is a wider and wider realization about issues of climate change and an increasing awareness of environmental degradation, many people are beginning to ask very big questions about the future. It may be that these big, existential questions may lead people to consider risks of the end of our species and the dire impacts for many species and ecosystems right now. These considerations — whether complex life can continue — are new in history, and they comprise the biggest social justice issues of our time. Reports of people who lose their land to corporate interests, or who must leave their land due to environmental degradation are in our news reports; extreme weather events and resource depletion are advancing; and so this concern about the future is entering into public awareness even as we speak. It seems to me that with awareness of global environmental concerns can often come a sense of ineffectiveness (Where do I start?) and a sense of helplessness and powerlessness (What could I possibly do?) whereby the only option seems to push the awareness to the side and try to disregard it. This can lead to a lot of energy invested in not feeling, which in turn can have a personal globalizing effect of shutting down all feeling, turning off our responses to our experience. Numbing, flat affect, loss of joy – these are familiar responses to trauma.

Sharon: From your framing of the issue, I’m wondering about how the frame of trauma impacts/effects might position MFTs to engage with clients who are experiencing this kind of hopelessness.

Sally: Perhaps this is similar to when MFTs were first becoming aware of power dynamics in people’s lives. MFTs can begin to ask questions about clients’ sense of well-being in the world, rather than assuming that these broader issues are unimportant or have little impact on the identified issues of anxiety and depression. We may find it useful to open space, when people express concerns of hopelessness and despair, by asking directly about their conceptions of the future (10-20 years out). We can draw upon one’s sense of identity/connection in the world with frames like, “When you think about the world we are leaving to future generations, what are your concerns?” and “What feelings about this do you walk around with?” These questions are informed by the work of Joanna Macy, an environmental advocate and systems scholar.

As relational and systemic thinkers, we are really well positioned to help people to open up new space to consider their experience and its connection to broader concerns. Ultimately, I think a lot of the sense of bleakness and powerlessness is strengthened by the disconnection/fragmentation of identity that occurs in industrialized societies.   A discourse of disconnection is cultivated that can keep people feeling small and dissatisfied, prevent their reaching out, and can silence stories of shared experience, thoughts, feelings. In working with the aftereffects of trauma we know that safety, sense of community and emotional responsiveness can help to point people in the direction of others who share an awareness of the need and possibility for change.

Sharon: It sounds like you may be asking MFTs to recognize the tactics of disconnection that stand in the way of telling other stories of caring, connecting that continue to exist even when times are bleak.

Sally: Yes! These are familiar tactics which overshadow stories of connection. The story of a larger identity that is connected, not isolated, does exist but it becomes marginalized and hard to access in midst of despair. I also would like to help all of us increase our ability to stand with feelings of distress as they can lead us towards compassion, caring. We’ve come back around to trauma impacts and the understandable desire to distance ourselves from painful feelings. However, we can explore those feelings. We can find ways through. I guess I would like to encourage a process whereby those experiencing this kind of distress could be supported to lean into their experience of life in this moment. From that leaning in, an opportunity for awareness could appear. From that opportunity, a hope for community connection could arise and perhaps the avenue for support, action, connection will become clearer.

The last idea I’d like to share with folks on Sunday is the role that biophilia – our love of the earth, the physical environment in which we live, can play. Ecotherapy practice is interested in helping people access memories of feeling most at home/at peace, memories that are often related to place in nature, particular environments, etc., and to renew their experience of that sense of the natural world. There are opportunities for connection in the midst of not knowing where to turn.

Sally Ludwig, Msc, RMFT

About Sally:

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Sally Ludwig is a Guelph couple and family therapist, supervisor and educator who has been following an interest in ways that human activities impact the environment and how those impacts inform human experience. A CFT since 2002, she is also a group-experiential process facilitator, community activist, and amateur musician.

November 19, 2014

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