The Psychology of Overwhelm: Why Understanding It Is the First Step in Addressing It

The Psychology of Overwhelm: Why Understanding It Is the First Step in Addressing It

We speak about the frustrations of climate denial, and yet rarely pause to inquire: what is denial, and how does it function? What does it mean to feel overwhelmed? Might loss or anxiety play a role? Taking our cue from decades of innovation in clinical psychology, it may be helpful to begin viewing behaviors as symptoms of underlying causes; and the more we understand these causes, the more effective our work can be. 

While topics of denial, overwhelm and anxiety may seem fair game for anyone in the field to weigh in, in fact these are highly complex psychological and social phenomena that we’d benefit from learning more about. And who may know a great deal about denial and how people manage anxieties? Perhaps those amongst us who spend many hours a week, working with people precisely on these issues.

Sectors who had scarcely given behavioral psychology a moment’s thought are now realizing we cannot instate any meaningful, systemic shift until we understand more about how people operate. Suddenly, utility companies and municipalities, governmental agencies and real estate development firms are keen to target “engagement” and engineer new technologies for innovating how people behave. However what seems particularly odd is how rarely are psychologists engaged in these discussions and debates, and specifically, those trained and experienced working on the front lines of behavior change – that is, working closely (and experientially) with human beings on the project of addressing and working through various behavioral and emotional impediments or challenges. Otherwise known as psychotherapy, counseling, or more psychodynamic approaches to research.

When I mention this, the first thing that comes to mind is the “couch” – and I’m asked if I am suggesting we all go into some sort of group therapy. Actually that’s not at all what I am suggesting. It may seem like a stretch to apply insights from psychotherapeutic practices to addressing the challenges we face with regards to climate change; after all, isn’t therapy about processing endlessly about our feelings and relationships and various neuroses? Hardly. In fact, integrating and applying insights from clinical contexts to various sectors, from public health to advertising to education is not new; it’s just not yet been recognized as a largely untapped resource to help us address precisely what we are trying to understand so deeply. That is, the nature of the human psyche, and the nature of change.

At the moment, the field is abuzz with new studies and research into the cognitive and cultural drivers of how climate change may be perceived and responded to. It’s hard to keep track of what is most important: worldviews, values, framing, how we process time as ‘fast or slow’. What has been missing, however, is a clear understanding of the nature of anxiety and the underlying psychosocial and emotional aspects of confronting the threats of climate change. And it is precisely here that clinical perspectives can be so helpful.

The field of psychology has long recognized the phenomena of defense mechanisms. In fact decades ago, a prominent American psychoanalyst Harold Searles nailed it when he wrote, “The current state of ecological deterioration is such as to evoke in us largely unconscious anxieties of different varieties…Thus the general apathy… is based upon largely unconscious ego defenses against these anxieties.” There is no reason whatsoever to assume this is no longer the case.

While innovated by Freud (whom we love to consider a relic of the Victorian era), the concept of defense mechanisms remains alive and well in the fields of psychotherapy and social psychological research – and for good reason. Because they are real and are key drivers in our behavior.

Defense mechanisms, put simply, are strategies we engage individually and socially to manage anxiety, distress, loss and related undesirable experiences. They tend to manifest in the form of denial, apathy, projection, and “reaction formation” – where we actively do the opposite of what we are most anxious about, as if to ward off the reality through our behavior (such as flying and driving more excessively when learning about climate change). Does any of this sound familiar? We spend much of our time dealing with the challenges (and frustrations) of how to simultaneously inform and inspire, treading the fine line between fear and hope.

If we are concerned about issues of overwhelm, perhaps it makes sense to first pause and ask, what is “overwhelm” really about. Technically, feeling overwhelmed relates to the experience of being submerged, inundated. But it’s arguably more of a symptom than a “thing,” or a “barrier” we must find a way to get across or get through. Rather, if we track overwhelm we may find it leads us into unforeseen territories, such as fearing loss of control, anxiety over low self-efficacy, or intense sadness. Until we actually understand what underlies “overwhelm” and move from seeing it as a thing to an expression of something far more fundamental and deeper, I believe our efforts will be limited and lack the traction we require.

What would this look like, as applied in our work and practices? There is no set formula; however we can learn a great deal from the craft of compassionate and effective mental health practitioners in our midst. 

To start, we can begin to investigate in earnest what the experience of climate change actually is for people; this goes beyond opinions or attitudes, and to the heart of the dilemmas, fears, aspirations, anxieties and ambivalence occasioned by the shifts required. We can begin to appreciate these enormous dilemmas, tensions and contradictions we negotiate in the face of our ecological crises – what I refer to as the “tangle,” rather than a “gap” between our values and actions. In understanding the “tangle” we can more effectively meet people where they are (what is called “attunement” in clinical psychology), which can be a basis for more systemic and deeper change. We can draw on the power of social interaction and “conversation-based platforms,” exemplified in the work of Carbon Conversations, which simply brings people together and allows the interactions to provide support necessary for many to implement behavioral changes. In other words, we can develop new means of support that lead us to behavioral changes, without either resorting to sugar-coating or focusing only on the positive, or the so-called “gloom and doom” approach. Rather, we can appreciate how truth and authenticity can have a surprising capacity to unleash creativity, aspirations, and discernment. 

Addressing overwhelm ultimately is about truthfully providing the right sort of support, without being prescriptive or patronizing. And being truthful is about acknowledging and recognizing the serious predicaments we face, creating space to process loss and anxieties as needed — moving forward with vision and inspiration.

Dr. Renee Lertzman is a trained psychosocial researcher and consultant who designs workshops and trainings for organizations on climate change communications and engagement. She is on the Associate Faculty
for the Masters in Environmental Education and Communication at Royal Roads University.