"Whatever you feel makes sense. You are not alone”: In Conversation with Dr Bronwyn Gresham

Inspired by those who campaign for the environment – but also worried about the impact of climate change on everyone’s mental wellbeing – Dr Bronwyn Gresham has created a practise which specialises in providing resources and tools to manage the emotional impacts of the changes taking place around us.

Ahead of her panel session at our screening of The Reluctant Radical, we had a chat with Bronwyn about self-care, self-compassion, and connecting with others in the face of universally-shared challenges.  

You volunteer for the not for profit organisation, Psychology for a Safe Climate (PSC). Tell us about the work of this organisation, and how it can help people experiencing concern about the environment?

PSC formed because as psychologists and therapists we recognised that the difficulty people have with engaging with climate change extends beyond understanding the science - it’s an emotional issue as well. Some of these emotions can be difficult to feel and make sense of and, left unattended, can weigh heavily and impede our capacity to be alive to the challenges.

The focus of our work has changed over time. Initially we applied our knowledge of psychological processes like distancing, denial and apathy, and we captured this work in our publication, ‘Let’s talk about Climate Change’. But we also knew, from our own experiences, just how hard it was to talk about this stuff, even to the people closest to us. Raising climate change in a conversation was met with discomfort, shutting down, and even anger. So, we captured some of our stories in our second booklet called, ‘Facing the Heat’. The intention here was to provide some basic psychological understanding into what might be going on in those tricky interpersonal moments.

As time progressed, so did public knowledge of human-caused climate change. Yet while the taboo about acknowledging climate change is reducing, there is one element that remains challenging; speaking about how bad it really is. Acknowledging that we are in an emergency. We are seeing the same defence mechanisms at play around this notion of seriousness and urgency within individuals, organisations and politics.

Given this, PSC’s work has shifted to supporting people who are trying to fully face this reality. We achieve this through workshops that are based on two fundamental assumptions. Firstly, that climate change does activate strong negative emotions, even existential issues. It raises questions about the survival of humanity, and this is frightening and even unthinkable. Much of the difficulty in dealing with climate change is connected to the many tensions it raises. We are torn between incremental and transformational change. We are torn between being both part of the problem and solution. And were are torn between reflection and action.

The second assumption is that to sustain responsive action, our emotions need tending to. If we ignore or push them aside, they tend to build up. So our workshops function to allow people the creative and reflective space to give expression to their emotions, thoughts and dilemmas, balanced with learning ways of constructively responding to emotions.  

You’ve started your own psychology practice, Compassionate Nature, which focuses specifically on self-care for those who advocate for the environment, justice and peace. What prompted you to start this practice, and what impact are you seeing from your work?  

The idea for starting my business had been percolating for many years, and over time the vision became clearer. I really admire the work others do around advocacy; those who invest their lives into the greater good, caring for others or the world around them. I find these people so inspiring. At the same time, I noticed the tendency for people in care-giving roles to self-sacrifice, carrying a huge weight of responsibility, and getting stuck in the unrelenting nature of the work. There is always more to be done. This was a recipe for exhaustion, fatigue, and ultimately dissatisfaction in their roles. When people burnout, they withdraw and disconnect from the work they love, which is most disheartening. And I really believe we need these kinds of people in the world! So I wanted to do something that would support these people in their awesome work, and I realised then that my passion was self-care.

Looking back now it’s obvious to me, but it’s taken me years to come to this realisation!

Becoming a mum two years ago, somewhere in that fuzzy mum brain haze it dawned on me what I wanted to do. Without the self-care skills I had been practising over the years as a psychologist, I would have struggled even more with navigating motherhood. Pair this with the realisation my children are growing up in the Anthropocene, in our climate emergency, and I had no choice but to act. This energised me to start the business. Its baby steps (pardon the pun) but it’s so rewarding. I have facilitated a few self-care workshops, mostly focused on the skill of self-compassion, and participants really get into it. Self-compassion is like the multi-vitamin of psychology resources. It supports us with so many challenges, and has the benefits of mindfulness and connection – both of which are consistently connected with mental health and wellbeing.

Media coverage about climate change and the deteriorating state of the environment globally is prolific. This saturation of coverage can make people feel great despair at the state of the world around them. What are your top tips for managing our mental health and wellbeing in this context?

I can so relate to this – to switching off news stories, to deleting emails about climate change before reading them… To me this is a signal that I am reaching my limit. Paul Gilbert and Pema Choden cover this really well in their book on compassion – they reflect on how we are brought up with news media which constantly focuses on death, disease, dying, humiliation and shame (so we are witnessing suffering), but which also leaves us feeling powerless to do anything about it . So we are left feeling dissatisfied – frustrated. To protect ourselves we shrug and switch off. Then, add to this an entertainment industry which is constantly encouraging us to take pleasure in seeing the bad guys get injured, mutilated or killed, and it would seem we are constantly invited to turn off sympathy and be emotionally unmoved by suffering. I believe this certainly captures what I experience. The more challenges in my personal life, or stress I am experiencing, the harder it is to tolerate the challenges I see on the news. If on the other hand I am feeling resourced, and I know an adequate solution is in progress, and witnessing the suffering is much easier to bear.

Something which would help us bear the bad news is being told what actions are being taken, commensurate with the problem. Ultimately, this is compassion. Being compassionate requires two key elements. Firstly we need to notice suffering, to observe and witness it as it is, without minimising or overdramatising it. Then we need to act to alleviate it. For this to be effective, our solutions need to be proportionate to the problem. Like if I go to the doctor with high blood pressure and get told to eat healthily, this solution, while helpful, would not solve the problem.

For climate change, we are certainly making incremental changes, but many of us know deep down that while this is necessary, it is not sufficient. We now have enough knowledge about mitigation and drawdown, but we lack the national and global response to proportionality match the problem we face. This, in my opinion and from my experience, is a great source of frustration, despair and disheartenment.

Therefore, our PSC workshops are supported by the growing literature on the mental health impacts of climate change – both direct, from extreme weather events, to indirect, like the anticipation of threat and frustration around inadequate systemic action. So that our participants can see that what they are feeling about climate change is real and warranted. It’s not just being overly sensitive, histrionic or fragile. It makes sense and is to be expected given the situation. I say this as it’s so important we do not pathologise the feelings like anxiety, anger, grief and despair. And equally important, we recognise that for some individuals who are not resourced enough to cope, or who have vulnerabilities, there an increased risks of experiencing more significant mental health issues like anxiety disorder, depression and PTSD.

So, what are my top tips? What works for me is having a banquet of skills that I can apply depending on what I need – and if one doesn’t help I try another.  I have learnt how to turn my attention towards or away from the subject, depending on what is going on any particular day. Like when I am with my kids, that’s where I want to be. So while climate change, among many other issues, may always be at the back of my mind, knowing how to turn my attention and engage in the moment helps me stay grounded, and enables me to enjoy the simple moments in life.

For me self-care is about trying to remain grounded, loving, centred and bold in the face of challenges. I consistently find self-compassion practise beneficial, adopting mindfulness, meditation, and the midday snooze when I am home with the kids. There are certainly times when I can feel overwhelmed, frustrated and stuck, and it’s at these times that I try to reach out. I have found great support in my family, PSC colleagues, and other people in the community.

Feeling inspired by others fuels my own drive to keep contributing. Spending time in nature, or just noticing nature wherever I am helps – even in the midst of urban cities there is always the sky to admire. Mentally, I try to embrace not knowing, which honestly is not too hard given how much I feel I don’t know! And giving myself permission to stuff up, to be imperfect and take courageous action anyway is important. Thanks to my optimistic partner, I also try to maintain some kind of balanced perspective, which involves noticing and celebrating the progress being made.

Finally, expressing gratitude, every day, is so simple, yet has a powerful way of bringing things into perspective.

In the film The Reluctant Radical, we follow the decades-long campaign by climate activist, Ken Ward, to educate others on the severity of the environmental changes taking place around the world. Ken’s activism sees him endure financial, physical and psychological hardship. How can we protect our wellbeing when we are passionate about advocating for change in a challenging context such as this?

I love the phrase ‘protect our wellbeing’ as it marks that looking after ourselves requires active engagement and nourishment. The challenge is figuring out how to nourish what drives us – our values of advocacy, speaking up, care and love to name a few – when faced with limitations and frustrations. So how can we continue to stay engaged, even when our actions are not resulting in the outcomes we hope for? I am so interested in how people do this, and for Ken Ward, it seems one of the ways he sustained action was to connect with his ‘why?’. To connect and re-connect again and again with what was important to him was what drove him – the biggest factor being his son.

For many people, it’s hard to understand why others don’t share their concerns – and even acknowledgement – of the state of the environment. As we see in The Reluctant Radical, this can lead to frustration and isolation from friends, family and colleagues. What tips do you have to help both activists and their loved ones to deal with this?

There are so many reasons people might avoid talking about climate change. It can lead to tensions, discomfort, shut down and ultimately moments of disconnect. These are painful for us; as social creatures, we ultimately want to be loved, understood and accepted. So any sense that we might be misunderstood, judged or seen as difficult, or be seen as ‘that person’, can lead us to avoidance, instead talking about more neutral or pleasant topics. This is us trying to protect ourselves against being the outcast. Yet the more we talk about it, the more we realise how much other people are thinking about this stuff too. In conversation there is the opportunity for connection, sharing the burden, and supporting each other as we fumble through this together. Conversations provide opportunity for understanding, expression of shared values and deepening connections. There is respite in knowing we are working this out together, and that we all have something to offer.

There are lots of conversational skills that can support us, including listening without judgement, finding what you have in common, being gentle in your approach, being curious and genuine, and sharing something personal about your concerns. This all helps to get to know each other on a deeper level.

What are some tell-tale signs that we might need to ‘take a break’ from the big issues around us?

Our mind, emotions and bodies are communicating with us all the time, and signalling to us when we might need rest, restoration, nourishment, space, connection and support. Signals for pending or actual burnout are easy to remember when thinking about the words ‘burn’ and ‘out’. The burn part is feeling irritable and easily frustrated, and having lowered capacity to tolerate stress and anger. The ‘out’ part captures the exhaustion side – feeling run down, tired all the time, heavy and low in energy. Often these signs are evident in our relationships – we become snappy or short with our loved ones, or we withdraw and isolate ourselves. These are all signals that something needs tending to, that we need some care and attention.  

What’s your favourite moment in The Reluctant Radical?

I have a few – but don’t want to give away the story too much! The one that stands out is when Ken engages in a collective action. His entire being feels lighter, energised, and there is a sense of restored hope in humanity.

What are you hoping people take away from the film and the panel discussion?

Just to know that whatever they feel makes sense, that they are not alone, and that we can resource ourselves and each other to stay responsive, grounded and strong, even as the world shakes around us. Addressing climate change invites us to reflect, to reconnect with universal values and to participate in life fully, together. Facing the climate emergency is also an opportunity for implementing meaningful change through the lenses of compassion, equity, and quality of life.

Join us for a Q&A with Bronwyn and other leading panellists following a screening of The Reluctant Radical, 6.15pm Friday 12 October at ACMI, Federation Square. Book now via the ACMI website.