The first session of the CoP focused on why community-based initiatives that strengthen the capacity for mental wellness and resilience are urgently needed for the climate emergency, the rise of trauma as an epidemic, and the potential for a public health approach to address these concerns.
Breath-Based Resilience Skills
The purpose of breath-based resilience skills is to develop “response flexibility,” as in a gap between what’s occurring in our surroundings and our response. Bob guided participants through breathing exercises to also offer a reflective pause in between topics. Bob named two forms of resilience skills, presencing and purposing.
Presencing is similar to self-regulation, emotional regulation, or mindfulness.
Purposing targets finding new sources of meaning, purpose, and healthy hope.
Trauma & Toxic Stress Are Epidemic
Bob’s first presentation covered why this community of practice is convening together to build resilience from a public health approach. Pre-Pandemic, less than ½ of the millions of individuals with mental health problems in the US could get help. Post-Pandemic, less than ¼ of individuals with mental health problems can get help. We are seeing a similar rise in mental health problems in other countries. If we are not prepared to address all socioecologic levels (e.g., individual, community, societal) of trauma related to the climate-ecosystem-biodiversity Mega-emergency, we will move beyond the “Anthropocene” into a new era of the “Traumacene”, where trauma and toxic stress become epidemic (e.g., rising fear of crime, violence, and toxic isolation)
The Socio-ecological model demonstrates the interconnected forces that influence mental and physical health. See PowerPoint slides for a copy of the model.
There is almost a zero chance of preventing global temperature from overshooting the 2.7 ℉- 1.5 ℃ thresholds that activates harmful and possibly irreversible impacts (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change April 2022).
Currently, there’s a 50-50 chance of reaching this overshoot in the next 5 years or sooner (World Meteorological Organization, May 2022).
Some proposed climate solutions can create unintended harm effects that would not be apparent for some years.
Under the current emission path, it is likely there will be abrupt “collapses of ecosystems” and “catastrophic biodiversity losses."
Neurobiology of Trauma & Resilience
Trauma in the nervous system can result in distorted perceptions, harmful social norms, polarized groups, aggression, intensified unresolved systematic oppression, and the creation of new forms of injustice/inequalities. This trauma can also activate memories of past traumas that lead to false threats, prompt fear-based reactions, and undermine coping abilities. Thereby, it is urgent to turn our efforts towards Transformational Resilience. Transformational Resilience is not just treating systems but also developing buffers and resilience skills.
The amygdala acts as a survival and alarm center of the brain, inducing fear and survival responses. This activates the sympathetic nervous system and the “fight or flight” response.
When trauma is buried, the sympathetic nervous system & amygdala will be continuously activated.
The pre-frontal cortex is the meaning-producing center of the brain, which can direct, but not control, the fear and alarm center.
Enhancing mental health resilience requires attention to all relations and socioecological levels.
Since intergenerational trauma occurs through buried trauma, we need to foster transformational resilience when suffering has no end point, resolution, or “cure."
Population level Resilience and a Public Health approach
Bob’s second presentation introduced building resilience through a public health approach. The climate emergency can be a catalyst for learning, growth, and constructive change rather than an attempt to bounce back to pre-disaster states. We should also bear in mind that many people don’t want to or can’t bounce back due to social inequities.
Instead, we should target Transformational Resilience and the wellbeing of our communities. This requires amplifying resilience on a population level through a public health approach that addresses all levels/relationships rather than a clinical/individual level approach. Bob challenged participants to consider that if trauma can be passed down intergenerationally, healing and resilience can be passed down as well. We need a public health approach, thinking systematically, and responding holistically (see the socio-ecological model) to the climate crisis. Prevention should be prioritized.
A public health approach leaves no one behind by emphasizing and strengthening protective factors. Such an approach can be used to develop multisystemic strategies with diverse leadership and a focus on tertiary/targeted problems.
On a community-led level, this can look like a well-coordinated, decentralized, multi-sector “ring team” that consists of neighborhood leaders, youth, disaster management, and other stakeholders. (See PowerPoint for sample RCC Ring Team Approach)
This team should build “strong” and “weak” social support networks across economic, cultural, and geographic boundaries in the community. (See PowerPoint for the five core foundational areas of a “social infrastructure” and a resilience coordinating coalition (RCC) among neighborhoods and communities.)
This strategy should ensure a “Just Transition” through resident engagement that creates local supportive/built, economic, and ecological conditions.
This strategy should include universal “literacy” about mental wellness and resilience, tailored to the cultural context of their community, such as helping residents regularly engage in specific practices that enhance mental wellness and transformational resilience.
Summary of chat discussion:
Education is a large part of building transformational resilience in our communities, but heavy emphasis on trauma could risk amplifying fear, feeling overwhelmed, and avoidance defense mechanisms. Education surrounding the potential traumatic impact of climate change must be offered within the context of our communities (culturally, socio-economically, age, etc.) as each community may have different perspectives, knowledge, and understandings of trauma and climate change. Some in the group recommended education around post-traumatic learning, reclaiming, reframing, and relanguaging, and moving towards a new cultural story that challenges unresolved historic trauma. Climate change already disproportionately impacts vulnerabilized communities, including people with developmental disabilities and members of racial and gender minority groups. Solutions (or fear-based reactions) around climate change also risk recreating or heightening these social inequities. These issues need to be considered on a systems level.