On a late fall evening in 2018, my seven-year-old son came home with a school flier for a penny drive. As he counted the change in his piggy bank to make a donation, I looked over the details. The donation drive across California public schools was led by the Basic Needs program in Chico, an urban area heavily impacted by the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. Chico is 10 miles from the town of Paradise, which was wiped out by the blaze. Over 150,000 acres of land burned, with nearly 20,000 building structures destroyed and 50,000 people forced to evacuate. Most devastating of all, 85 Paradise residents lost their lives. The situation has only gotten worse, with ecological disasters on the rise due to climate change.
In the Western United States, there is clear evidence1 that human-caused climate warming has contributed to a 1,000% increase in the area burned by wildfires over the last three decades. The communities most affected are also those most vulnerable. In the case of the Camp Fire, the affected communities of Paradise and Chico are part of Butte County, which has the state’s highest poverty rate alongside a shortage of healthcare. Butte County also ranks highest in the state for adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)—traumatic events such as neglect or abuse that put children at risk for developing a range of mental and physical illnesses in adulthood.
As a neuroscientist, I’m interested in how the environment shapes our brains as well as how family environments, particularly ACEs, impact people’s lives as they develop. Our natural environment, including its climate, falls under a broader umbrella of factors that affect our brains and mental health. Given this, I was keen to learn more about the Camp Fire tragedy and its aftermath. In light of my son’s penny drive, I contacted Joe Picard, director of the Basic Needs program in Chico. He confirmed my suspicions that the Camp Fire was having dire impacts on the mental health of local citizens. Yet, at the time, there was little-to-no reporting in the scientific literature on how climate change accelerated disasters impact mental health.
While climate chaos is a global challenge, local action is often where we, as individuals, can make the biggest difference. Eager to contribute, I wanted to meet scientists with whom I could better characterize and quantify the mental health impacts being observed in affected communities. Joe connected me to amazing collaborators at the California State University at Chico, and so began my journey studying the intersection of climate change and mental health.
In a series of studies, we have now shown that a climate change accelerated disaster, such as a major wildfire, can have long lasting impacts2 on mental health3 and brain health.4 These impacts have now come to be understood as climate trauma that is distinct from, yet intersects with and potentially amplifies, other forms of trauma that individuals within our communities face. Specifically, we found that within the impacted community, those who were directly exposed (i.e., who suffered personal loss/damage) showed the most aggravated symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Such symptoms were reported by nearly 35% of the directly exposed population, and at rates 3 times greater than in a control population that was not exposed to the same wildfire. Anxiety and depression symptoms were also heightened in those directly exposed. We further characterized mental health in individuals who were indirectly exposed (i.e., who witnessed the disaster within the community but did not suffer personal loss/damage). These individuals also showed poor mental health in the aftermath of the wildfire, with symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression that were intermediate between those directly exposed to the disaster and the control population. This research showed how our natural environment and the communities in which we reside can impact our mental health in a climate disaster.
…we have now shown that a climate change accelerated disaster, such as a major wildfire, can have long lasting impacts on mental health and brain health.
An Important Role for Mindfulness
In our research with 725 community participants in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, we also explored whether any factors were associated with a greater risk for—or offered a buffer against—negative mental health2 outcomes.3 In line with a vast scientific literature that ACEs leave us vulnerable to future stressors, we found that a prior history of ACEs can indeed worsen the mental health impacts of a climate disaster. At the same time, we discovered that certain factors protect well-being. On the social level, individuals who reported greater family support, close friendships, and a sense of community were protected from developing poor mental health following the wildfire. But the most prominent protective factors were at the individual level—specifically, an active lifestyle, a belief in personal resilience, and present-moment mindfulness.
Mindfulness is understood as a process of open attention, with awareness of one’s present-moment experience. Mindfulness focuses on attention to the present in terms of both external and internal states, which include visuals, sounds, smells, body sensations, thoughts, and emotional reactions. Imagining oneself being mindful in the context of a deadly event seems very challenging, yet mindfulness can be a valuable tool to help us decouple the self from the actual event and the experiences and mental processes that surround it. While grief and sorrow are natural responses to a life-threatening environmental stressor, our studies found that mindfulness may actually protect us from developing symptoms of long-term climate trauma.
To date, our research in the budding field of mental health in times of climate change has been observational. This means that while we observe that mindfulness can be a positive trait protecting well-being in the context of climate trauma, no study has yet implemented a mindfulness intervention to specifically address eco-grief or eco-anxiety, or trauma symptoms that develop in the aftermath of a climate disaster. We are currently working with community partners in climate vulnerable regions in Butte County to investigate and build the evidence base around which mindfulness applications would be the most useful and effective.
Additionally, as a mandate of the University of California’s Climate Change and Mental Health Initiative that I co-lead, we are integrating mindfulness within climate curricula to foster climate resilience in youth. Assessment of outcomes—particularly whether we can neutralize youth climate distress and transform it into climate action—is an essential focus of this forthcoming effort. The need for resiliency education programs is great, with current curricula focused primarily on the impacts of climate change on human and planetary health. What’s been missing is instruction on ways students can effectively process such information and protect against added distress.
Overall, research on mindfulness interventions has shown that cultivating the ability to become more mindful can improve our emotional health, including lessening anxiety and depression symptoms. Importantly, mindfulness training can also benefit aspects of cognitive health (i.e., the ability to pay attention to goals at hand and to suppress irrelevant distractions). We recently showed4 that these same cognitive functions are impacted in individuals suffering from climate trauma, hence mindfulness training may be very relevant in this context. Along these lines, we found5 that adolescents with a history of ACEs can develop long-lasting attention skills when offered mindfulness training. Further, these cognitive improvements in mindful adolescents were associated with increases in functional connectivity of brain circuits that are implicated not only in sustained attention, but also empathy and compassion.6 This means that mindfulness practice could be a gateway towards developing a greater sense of felt concern and caring towards self and others. When we learn to be non-judgmental towards our own thoughts, especially the negative ones, we can learn to love ourselves and also be more present and of service to others. Hence, cultivating mindfulness has broad implications for cognitive and psychological well-being, and may even have benefits in the context of climate trauma.
Healing Through Nature
Appreciating the role of mindfulness led us to question whether nature—and in particular, nature-based contemplative practices—could offer relief to those suffering from poor mental health in the aftermath of climate disasters. Clearly, immersion in nature is fully aligned with our evolutionary history as a human species. Over the span of our existence, humans have spent 99.99% of time in natural environments,7 not urban settings. It may very well be that the restorative benefits of nature are hard-wired in our biology.
Communities impacted by climate disasters—such as the Chico/Paradise region in Butte County—are adopting nature-integrated mindfulness solutions to enhance community mental health. The Chico Ecotherapy program that is part of the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve regularly offers eco-therapy to local residents. In their approach, participants are offered a guided, immersive and mindful experience in a natural environment with the goal of simultaneously promoting the well-being of both people and the land. Ecotherapy also works to enhance the human-earth connection. In the case of climate trauma, the primary goal is to rekindle a positive human-earth connection that was destroyed by the climate disaster. In the aftermath of the Camp Fire disaster, affected residents shared that not just smoke from a wildfire, but any smoke—even from cooking in the kitchen—can stir up feelings of panic and anxiety. In this circumstance, the objective of ecotherapy is to renormalize such negative sensory-emotional associations.
In practice, ecotherapy offers an invitation to experience the natural world through our senses. In a formal ecotherapy program, a certified guide offers a series of invitations for participants to deepen their sensory experience of the nature around them, and to interact with nature using all five senses. As with traditional mindfulness practice, ecotherapy (sometimes called mindfulness in nature) is also practiced in a non-judgmental manner.
The scientific literature on ecotherapy or mindfulness in nature interventions is nascent; yet, early studies8 suggest diverse health benefits for the immune, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems, as well as benefits for psychological well-being, especially anxiety. Much research shows that the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, and the brain networks that support cognition and mental health are intimately linked circuits.9 Thus, broad and complementary benefits in these biological systems are very plausible through integrative intervention approaches like eco-mindfulness—a core component of ecotherapy.
From a theoretical standpoint, attention restoration and stress reduction approaches suggest that immersion in unthreatening natural environments can reduce stress10 and improve relevant physiological functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. Empirical research linked to a multi-day eco-mindfulness retreat further demonstrated enhanced immunity11 with significantly increased blood concentration of natural killer (NK) cells after the retreat, while urban walks across multiple days did not show any such benefits. NK cells are white blood cells that help us fight and destroy microbial infections and diseased cells such as cancer cells. The study also showed a significant reduction in urinary adrenaline (a marker of the stress response) observed after the eco-mindfulness sessions.
Another study showed changes in brain activations12 after brief nature exposure (a 90-minute nature walk compared to an urban walk). While this was not an eco-mindfulness study per se, participants were asked to pay attention to their environment and take photographs of whatever captured their attention during the walk. Interestingly, the study found a reduction in brain activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex after the nature walk. This brain region is particularly hyperactive in depression and has been linked with rumination (i.e., negative unproductive thoughts and worrying). This nature walk study also showed reductions in rumination alongside the reduction in subgenual prefrontal cortex activity, demonstrating positively linked brain-behavior outcomes. Thus, the study found benefits of even a brief attentive session in nature. A related study of nearly 5,000 people found that those who visited nature at least once a week showed greater nature connectedness, which in turn contributed to positive outcomes including eudaimonic well-being and pro-environmental behaviors.13 Again, while this was not a formal eco-mindfulness study, one can surmise that individuals who visit nature consistently, at least once a week—and who do so with intention and awareness—gain multiple benefits from it.
…one can surmise that individuals who visit nature consistently, at least once a week—and who do so with intention and awareness—gain multiple benefits from it.
Implications, Cautions, and Next Steps
Further research is needed to replicate prior findings and importantly, to expand this work to understand how mindfulness, and especially eco-mindfulness, may strengthen the human-earth connection, and relieve eco-anxiety, eco-grief, and symptoms of climate trauma.
From a neuroscience point of view, eco-mindfulness has the potential to be advantageous for brain health given that it leverages both the so-called top-down and bottom-up aspects of attention. Top-down attention is internally generated, and refers to our ability to voluntarily focus on goal-relevant information and suppress goal-irrelevant distractions. On the other hand, bottom-up attention is driven by sensory information, usually from the external environment. Mindfulness engages the process of top-down attention as we learn to focus on internal sensations and let go of irrelevant thoughts. At the same time, immersion in nature engages a sense of awe and fascination that is driven by sensory information from the world around us (e.g., the sight of a stunning sunset or a vast landscape), therefore engaging bottom-up attention. The two complementary processes meet to simultaneously promote self-regulation, enabling us to more flexibly respond to emotional, cognitive, and behavioral demands as well as restore ourselves from mental fatigue.
We also need to better incorporate and understand the role of social connection in eco-mindfulness. After all, our climate2 trauma research3 has shown that strong social connections—with family, friends, and the broader community—are also protective of well-being in the context of a climate disaster. Hence, eco-mindfulness practiced in a group setting may be especially helpful, particularly when group members are united in their experience of the same climate trauma.
What’s clear is that the climate crisis is upon us, and our personal well-being and mental health are under threat. Above, I have reflected on the role of mindfulness with a deeper dive into eco-mindfulness to emphasize the potential positive benefits of such practices for our well-being. Much science needs to be done to cement the evidence base.
My intention with this essay is not to suggest that mindfulness interventions are a blanket solution for attaining psychological well-being. Rather, I want to highlight the possibility that mindfulness practice, particularly when embedded in nature, may be useful and effective in the context of ecological grief, anxiety, and trauma. In addition, we must leverage state-of-the-art scientific methods to cater to each individual’s mental health needs. It is as important to understand who may not benefit from an eco-mindfulness approach as it is to understand who will.
The current crisis calls us to build collective action towards climate solutions that can create a sustainable future for ourselves and the planet. To love and cherish our future and generations to come, we must first learn to love our present selves, and then leverage this inner work to make a positive difference in the world around us. Eco-mindfulness is an invitation to such inner work in harmony with nature, which can be awe-inspiring and healing. A healed and resilient personal self has the potential to become a powerful motivator and integrated member of collective climate solutions14 for planetary health.
A healed and resilient personal self has the potential to become a powerful motivator and integrated member of collective climate solutions.
One could say my son’s penny drive for small change led to big change in my career. My own journey has evolved from being trained as a basic neuroscientist to becoming an applied mental health researcher, to now working closely with local communities to try to solve problems that are emerging from the climate crisis. On this path, I find inspiration and motivation in listening to community partners, understanding their needs, and being of service through my unique skill set.
The climate crisis affects us all, encouraging each of us to find ways to serve the greater good. To meet this moment, every human must realize that we are in a closed-loop relationship with nature. What affects nature affects us and vice versa. It also means that climate action should not be perceived as simply saving a natural resource. This planet is our one and only home; without climate action, we will not thrive as a species.
Combining mindfulness and nature may help us benefit from the Earth’s healing abilities, and to both understand and live in the reciprocal relationship between humans and nature. Ultimately, my hope is that this can be one factor in our enacting greater responsibility toward our planetary home, as it’s clear that our future depends on it.
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