‘I’m afraid something might be coming’

Anticipatory traumatic stress disorder: People who live in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas lock themselves in rooms. They do not go out. They do not gather. They do not walk with friends. They take tranquilisers. They run. They hide. They faint when a drone appears above them. They startle easily. They jump at any loud noise. They are irritable. They have no appetite. They can’t keep anything down. They have nightmares. They struggle to sleep. They wake in the middle of the night screaming. They see drones in their beds, on the ceiling, near the stove, on the ground, in the sky. They are uneasy. They are afraid. The drones are all over my brain, one man said.

– Sarah Sentilles, Draw Your Weapons

John once tried to describe to me what it felt like to be inside his mind. He said, ‘You know what it’s like to get a song stuck in your head where it’s just playing over and over and you just can’t get it out of there, even if it’s a terrible song?’ That is what happened to him every day. He would replay the eventualities of climate change, and resource depletion, and economic collapse. He couldn’t get them out of his head.

– Brian Reed, S-Town


In 2013, American psychiatrist and climate change activist Dr Lise Van Susteren coined the term ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’ (though the honour should properly go to satire website The Onion, which in 2006 featured an article on a condition with the same name) to describe stress reactions related to possible rather than past events. According to Van Susteren, the two conditions are phenomenologically alike, but in pre-traumatic stress disorder ‘we have in our minds images of the future that reflect what scientists are telling us; images of people and animals suffering because of dumb choices we are making today. I would say it’s an entirely legitimate condition – accompanied by a non-stop, gnawing sense that more needs to be done.’

The most prominent study so far of pre-traumatic stress disorder was done in 2014 by Dorthe Berntsen and David C Rubin. They defined the condition as ‘disturbing future-oriented cognitions and images as measured in terms of a direct temporal reversal of the conceptualisations of past-directed cognition in the PTSD diagnosis’. Looking at a group of Danish soldiers before, during and after their deployment to Afghanistan, Bernsten and Rubin found that pre-traumatic responses – involuntary intrusive images and thoughts, high levels of arousal and attempts at avoidance – were experienced at the same level as post-traumatic responses. Their second finding was that pre-traumatic stress reactions are a strong predictor for the development of post-traumatic symptoms.

To measure the pre-traumatic responses of the soldiers, Bernsten and Rubin created the ‘pre-traumatic stress reactions checklist (PreCL)’, adapting the first eight items of the PTSD checklist contained in the DSM-IV – the then-current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association – while leaving the remaining nine items unchanged. The first eight ‘temporally reversed’ items were:

  1. Repeated, disturbing dreams concerning a possible stressful experience in the future?
  2. Suddenly acting or feeling as if a possible stressful experience in the future already were happening (as if you were pre-living it)?
  3. Feeling very upset when something reminded you of a possible stressful experience in the future?
  4. Having physical reactions (e.g., heart pounding, trouble breathing, sweating) when something reminded you of a possible stressful experience in the future?
  5. Avoiding thinking about or talking about a possible stressful experience in the future or avoiding having feelings related to it?
  6. Avoiding activities or situations because they reminded you of a possible stressful experience in the future?
  7. Trouble imagining important parts of a possible stressful experience in the future?

In reconceptualising the temporality of trauma, Bernsten and Rubin are not so much laying the groundwork for a new pathology (you won’t find anticipatory or pre-traumatic stress disorder in the latest DSM) as they are groping towards an expanded definition of what we currently understand as PTSD. ‘Future research’, they write, ‘should examine whether [the PreCL] also may be used as a screening instrument in relation to non-military traumatic events as well as other subjectively stressful events, such as exams, medical procedures, or childbirth.’ And, I would argue, climate change.


In The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic (2005), French philosopher Catherine Malabou writes of ‘the anticipatory structure operating within subjectivity itself’. For Clive Hamilton, author of Defiant Earth (2017), this means that ‘the present is drenched with the future, bringing a feeling for humanity’s whole future, the unsettling presence of times to come’. Conservatives, Hamilton notes, look to the past for a subjectivity that is not at the mercy of the whims of the present, whereas progressives look to the past for its ruptures. In the age of anthropogenic climate change, however, our increasingly unstable planet is radically disrupting such continuities. In a way, Bernsten and Rubin’s temporal reversals acknowledge this: the future – irreversibly changed, out of control and no longer subject to the dreams of the techno-utopians – is enfolding into the present in a way that is having significant psychological effects on more and more of us. ‘Indeed,’ notes the forensic psychologist Spencer Eth, ‘future scenarios may approximate what psychiatrist Robert Lifton described as a death imprint – the indelible images of the grotesque that the person cannot assimilate.’

In Jeff Nichols’ film Take Shelter (2011), construction worker Curtis LaForche begins to experience a series of vivid premonitions of an apocalyptic environmental event. In the film’s opening point-of-view shot, Curtis stands outside his Midwestern house and looks up at an uncanny-looking storm formation. It starts to rain – not water, but a yellowy viscous substance. He closes his eyes as if in a dream state, or trying to wake up from one. The film cuts to Curtis in the shower, eyes closed again, and the viewer is left to wonder at the nature of the previous scene – was it a dream recalled, a post-traumatic memory, or a precognition of an event yet to happen?

Later, Curtis witnesses bizarre bird formations that nobody else can see and suffers a disturbing nightmare in which his dog, Red, driven crazy by an approaching storm, mauls his arm. The pain of the attack seems to leak from Curtis’ unconscious into his waking life; the divide between the two states becomes increasingly porous. Curtis’ visions intensify, placing strain on his relationships with wife Samantha, daughter Hannah and workmate Dewart, particularly once he became obsessive about building a storm shelter for himself and his family. He tells Samantha: ‘It’s hard to explain because it’s not just a dream. It’s a feeling. I’m afraid something might be coming, something that isn’t right. I can’t describe it.’ At a community dinner, Curtis is confronted by Dewart about his erratic behaviour and flies into a violent rage, overturning a table before shouting at the families gathered there that, ‘there is a storm coming like nothing you have ever seen, and not one of you is prepared for it.’ Curtis is a kind of Cassandra, but he also embodies, in E Ann Kaplan’s words, ‘the cultural unconscious about global warming’. Kaplan writes: ‘He represents those humans who are anticipating climate catastrophe and who are traumatised by anticipatory visions before they have even happened.’

But it’s not simply the nightmare-induced manifestations of PTSD-like symptoms – aggression, hyper-vigilance, bedwetting – that account for Curtis’ increasing alienation from his friends and family. More than this, Curtis is temporally displaced from everybody around him, a situation that Nichols underlines by refusing to reveal whether the events depicted are occurring in the filmic present or are (real or imagined) irruptions from an apocalyptically climate-changed future.

One of the most frightening features of Curtis’ ‘dreams’ is the recurring appearance of crazed, zombie-like creatures, possibly an embodiment of Hamilton’s claim that ‘the accumulation of facts about ecological disruption seems to have a narcotising effect’. Or perhaps the zombies signify a shift in our relationship with the environment: if, for the Romantic poets, nature made us more moral beings, then climate change has turned the natural world into a brutalising force, a fact borne out by studies that link increased temperatures to rising rates of crime and aggression (and even war where other stressors, such as resource scarcity, are present).

Curtis’ non-linear experience of the world also presents us with another possibility: that, as Timothy Morton has argued, the end of the world has already happened: ‘The very feeling of wondering whether the catastrophe will begin soon is a symptom of its already having begun.’ (Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist who warned of ‘the end of nature’ as far back as 1989, has proposed we add an extra ‘a’ to the name of the planet – ‘Eaarth’ – to signify humankind’s drastic transformation of the global ecosystem.)

In the final scene of Take Shelter, Curtis – who has now been diagnosed with schizophrenia – and his family are on vacation at a beach house. A storm is rolling in over the ocean, like one of the ones Curtis has been experiencing – dark and undulating, hyperreal. But, crucially, it’s Hannah who sees it first. Curtis clutches her protectively as Samantha emerges from the house. ‘Sam,’ he says, quietly urging. ‘Okay,’ she replies. Is this the storm that Curtis has been prophesying all along, or is this, for Samantha, a kind of epiphany, a profoundly disruptive event that, in Hamilton’s words, ‘relegates the old life to the past and inaugurates a new sensibility’? The film leaves space for both of these possibilities to be true at once. Climate is changing. Climate has changed.

It may be that ‘climate change’ is as much a misnomer as ‘global warming’; perhaps, like ‘Earth’, the term is no longer applicable. (Some have suggested ‘global weirding’ as a more appropriate term, while others – including former White House science advisor John Holdren – have proposed ‘global climate disruption’.) Change, after all, implies arrival at some point. In the case of climate change, there is a sense – reflected in the wavering public discourse around it – that the ‘change’ part suggests a destination perpetually forestalled. Under this scenario – like the proverbial frog boiled alive before it has noticed the rising water temperature – there isn’t enough time to change course in a way that will make any real difference. ‘How can we convert into image and narrative’, wondered Rob Nixon in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2010), ‘the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and that star nobody?’


Scene 1: ‘It’s happening already. It’s happening now’ (Simon Stephens, Punk Rock)

Chadwick: Human beings are pathetic. Everything human beings do finishes up bad in the end. Everything good human beings ever make is built on something monstrous. Nothing lasts. We certainly won’t. We could have made something really extraordinary and we won’t. We have been around 100,000 years. We will have died out before the next 200. You know what we’ve got to look forward to? You know what will define the next 200? Religions will become brutalized; crime rates will become hysterical; everybody will become addicted to internet sex; suicide will become fashionable; there will be famine; there will be floods; there will be fires in the major cities of the Western world. Our education systems will become battered; our health services unsustainable; our police forces unmanageable; our governments corrupt. There will be open brutality in the streets; there will be nuclear war; massive depletion of resources on every level; insanely increasing Third-World populations. It’s happening already. It’s happening now. Thousands die every summer from floods in the Indian monsoon season. Africans from Senegal wash up on the beaches of the Mediterranean and get looked after by guilty liberal holiday-makers. Somalians wait in hostels in Malta, or prison islands north of Australia. Hundreds die of heat or fire every year in Paris. Or California. Or Athens. The oceans will rise. The cities will flood. The power stations will flood. Airports will flood. Species will vanish forever. Including ours. So if you think I’m worried by you calling me names, Bennet, you little, little boy, you are fucking kidding yourself.


Last year, American meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus wrote a Twitter thread that began: ‘I’m starting my eleventh year working on climate change, including the last four in daily journalism. Today I went to see a counsellor about it.’ There were days, Holthaus wrote, when he felt so dispirited he couldn’t work. He would read a news item in the morning – if it were today, as I write these words, it might be about how the number of wild animals on Earth has halved in the last forty years – and simply shut down, unable to function. ‘You feel powerless. You feel like nothing matters. Your relationships suffer. You feel guilty for not doing more.’

Holthaus joins a small but growing list of scientists who have chosen to speak publicly of the psychological effects of studying climate change. In April 2016, Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, tweeted: ‘I showed the results of aerial surveys of #bleaching on the #GreatBarrierReef to my students. And then we wept.’

Is This How You Feel? features letters from dozens of scientists outlining their emotional and psychological responses to climate change. Their chief register is despair, often sliding into a kind of epilogic hope that might better be described as stoicism. Reading them, I wonder whether their optimism represents a form of denial – distinct, to be sure, from the right-wing variety that refuses the fact of climate change at all – or whether the avoidance of so-called ‘doomsday messaging’ is simply the price of speaking out. (It has become something of an article of faith within the climate movement that doomsday messages are counterproductive. On the contrary, Joe Romm, founding editor of ClimateProgress, has argued that it’s only through the repetition of such messages, however foreboding, that the public can be mobilised into thought and action.)

In their naked subjectivity, the letters on Is This How You Feel? invite the criticism that their authors have forgone the detachment presumed to be both the hallmark of a good scientist and the guarantee of a science communicator’s credibility. Holthaus and other despairing climate scientists (including Jason Box, who in 2014 tweeted that ‘If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d’) have been condemned for their emotive comments, including by their own colleagues, many of whom are likely to understate risks for fear of being seen as ‘alarmist’. Gavin Schmidt, of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told Esquire, ‘My reaction to Jason Box’s comments is – what is the point of saying that? It doesn’t help anybody.’

But Brendan Mackey, director of Griffith University’s Climate Change Response Program, and author of a letter on Is This How You Feel?, told me that the criticism Holthaus received was ‘erroneous’:

I think people who work in all spheres of science need to be engaged in public dialogue about the social implications of the knowledge they have. And I think acknowledging that you are personally affected by that knowledge is just being realistic. I would argue that it helps you to be more objective in your actual scientific research, to be cognisant of where and how you are being mentally or psychologically or emotionally affected by what you do. Of course, if you are not, there is a risk that your emotions will interfere with your actual research activities. So I think you need a certain level of self-awareness about how what you are doing is affecting you in order to be able to perform your job well as a scientist. And to pretend you are some kind of a machine is just errant nonsense.

Mackey’s view chimes with that of American psychologist Renee Lertzman, who last year tweeted a call for more emotive public statements:

The sooner we start showing up in our climate work with our vulnerability and compassion, the quicker we can see action take hold. This seems counterintuitive to the kind of people who work for environmental projects, who often have a highly technical or pragmatic orientation. They assume that feelings will distract and derail us. It’s completely the opposite. This much I know.

In Feeling the Heat (2011), science journalist Jo Chandler wrote: ‘One of the questions I have for scientists is how they endure their knowledge, if it anticipates terrible danger. If their grasp of science brings an amorphous future into sharp, cataclysmic focus, then how do they pursue ordinary lives, imagine a future, grow families?’ Mackey describes himself as an ‘operational optimist’ and tells me most of the other climate scientists he knows – and who have stayed working in the field – ‘have a certain psychological resilience’. But, he qualifies, ‘a lot of people are really pessimistic and don’t have much hope going forward. But, you know, many humans over the course of history have found themselves in dark situations where they couldn’t see much hope for the future, or for their societies, but we persist in the face of such threats.’

When it comes to how individuals feel about a ‘wicked problem’ like climate change – despondent, angry, neurotic, hopeful – there are many complex, interrelated personal and psychopathological variables at play. But I wonder if our mental resilience requires a turning away, a compartmentalisation of the data, and whether this strategy (while effective and sometimes necessary for survival) may help to sustain the complacency and delusion that has made this global catastrophe possible. (It has been said that optimism is an essentially conservative position because it presupposes contentment with the status quo.)

In the late capitalist era, we have been conditioned to believe that psychological states such as depression and anxiety can be reduced to pathological, individualised causes and thus rectified through pharmacological, monetised cures. But, as Andrew Solomon, Johann Hari and others have suggested, these conditions may be the ‘correct’ responses to an external world that has gone mad. Can these conditions denote insight rather than illness? (In Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, released the same year as Take Shelter, it’s the uncanny presence of a rogue planet in the sky, with its threat of an apocalyptic collision with Earth, that produces the effect of the film’s title.) By the end of this century – if we continue with ‘business as usual’ – the average planetary temperature is expected to be between two-and-a-half and five degrees hotter than it was in the pre-industrial era. In 200 years’ time, it may be twice that – ‘an insane amount of extra heat in the system,’ Mackey tells me. It’s little wonder that Amitav Ghosh has called our collective, multivalent failure to confront climate change ‘the great derangement’.

Online, there has been a proliferation of guides on how to cope with the psychological effects of climate change, most of which draw on established models of mental health care. Many sensibly advocate the same strategies – exercise, meditation, therapy and so on – that are widely recognised to reduce depression and anxiety (even if they may be least available to those who need them the most: the groups of vulnerable people – children, the unemployed, those with low socio-economic status – who are disproportionately affected by the direct and indirect impacts of climate change). And, no doubt, Thomas J Doherty and Susan Clayton are right to assert in their 2011 study ‘The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change’ that ‘[p]sychologists have an ethical obligation to take immediate steps to minimise the psychological harm associated with climate change, to help reduce global disparities in climate impacts, and to continually improve their climate-related interventions’.

But what Sam Kriss and Ellie Mae O’Hagan have termed ‘political depression’ – the loss of hope felt by climate scientists, activists and others – is more than simply a debilitating pathology. On the contrary, it may be that climate despair can be understood in terms of ‘depressive realism’, the theory developed by Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson that suggests mild to moderate depressives may actually view so-called contingent events – those which may or may not occur – more accurately than others. Moreover, in refusing positive illusions of the kind often used to cope with trauma, hopelessness may prove a galvanising force, potent in its embracement of unpleasant facts. As Kriss and O’Hagan note, ‘It’s not just that climate change is depressing; the determination to stop it has to begin from a depressive conviction: to not just forget that so much has been lost and more is going every day – to keep close to memory.’

It’s now abundantly clear that climate change cannot be prevented, only mitigated. The insistence that we still have time to act, that we can muster the necessary political will, can no longer be plausibly sustained. To believe otherwise is to propagate an illusion that, in its own way, is as dangerously myopic as outright denial. ‘We must learn to live,’ as Clive Hamilton puts it, ‘on this world’. As Alloy and Abramsons’ studies have shown, optimists not only make less realistic judgements, they also have an overinflated sense of how much they are in control of things. In the climate-change era, we have ceded much of our control – however illusory it was in the first place – to nature, and to the future. As Kriss and O’Hagan write:

Genuine autonomy over ourselves and our actions isn’t waiting for us, already somehow existing in a sunlit future; right now, what lingers over the horizon is death. It’s not a matter of waiting for the inevitable, or assuming that the human spirit will, at the last moment, suddenly shine through. It’s a question of learning. To stop climate change means finally, at long last, learning how to be human – for the first time.


Scene 2: ‘This is the way it will be foreshadowed’ (Josephine Rowe, Before the Power Went Out)

Before the power went out I saw a girl dressed in a black jacket and plaid skirt, cawing like a corvidae, like a warning except she wasn’t circling: she was piss-bolting down the tram tracks, down the middle of the road between the bright streams of traffic and just Haw-Hawing her fucking head off. Then all the lights went out and the streets went dark and the traffic slowed down creeping like dreamthings along the soft black gutters. And somewhere out amongst it all she was still running, her peroxide-yellow hair flagging out behind her snarled with dirty little secrets, the memories of men’s fingers and I thought of girls I went to high school with, the ones who showed up Monday mornings with their hair all dried out from domestic bleach, yellow-white like faded notices in suburban shop fronts. And I thought when it all turns to hell, when all reason crawls up under the house to die and the whole derelict world is shut off and hauled down, this is the way it will be foreshadowed. This is the way the end will be prophesied. By a girl in a plaid skirt tearing through a blackout, crowing bloody murder from the middle of the tram tracks. I went home and sat in my kitchen, lit a candle stub and waited.




Read the rest of Overland 230

If you enjoyed this essay, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four outstanding issues for a year

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

More by Ben Brooker ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays