Is Climate Change Response 'Fight or Flight' or 'Rest and Digest'? (Op-Ed)

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Raghu Murtugudde is executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Forecasting System at the University of Maryland Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) and a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science. This Op-Ed was adapted from one that first appeared on Gudde-Blog. Murtugudde contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Humans have evolved to sense some crises instinctively — like the sight of a fire or a snake — and respond with fight or flight. But human response to slowly unfolding emergencies — like climate change — may be akin to that of a frog in a pot of water being heated slowly. 

Much of human higher thinking occurs in a part of the brain called the neocortex. But the basic functions of the human body — such as breathing, digestion, heartbeat, balance and movement — occur in the background without much conscious thought. They are controlled by an involuntary response system called the autonomic nervous system  made up of the sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric nervous systems, all critical for human functioning. 

The evolutionary instinct for fight or flight is the responsibility of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the more benign evolutionary instinct for "rest and digest" or "feed and breed" response is a domain of the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). Research shows that SNS is a perturbation to the PSNS and we need the PSNS to not only live a happy and well-connected life but also to survive. In other words, if you found a way to disconnect the SNS, you will survive just fine but disengaging the PSNS will kill you. PSNS is the mindful state, and wise decisions come out of mindfulness.

Weather and climate extremes are responsible for many deaths each year, and just living through a tornado, a hurricane, a flood, or a drought can leave lasting psychological impacts. Regions that are exposed to repeated climate disasters tend to be adapted to these experiences and fare better. But when a Katrina or a Sandy hits a city like New Orleans or Atlantic City, the devastation of such an extreme event can be especially traumatic. An unforeseen experience of this magnitude can be exacerbated by the fear that climate change will bring more and more of these extreme events, despite the fact that natural variability still exerts considerable control on our planet's weather and climate.

Climate change already has a direct impact on human health. Climate change also affects food quantity and quality and may cause indirect impacts through nutrient starvation and obesity. The potential for climate impacts to act as a multiple stressor due to the psychological and physical health impacts of climate change is real and this is just another trigger for the amygdala, the evolutionary alarm system.

Should our response to climate change be from the SNS as fight or flight or from the PSNS in a rest and digest mode? An imminent tornado or a hurricane obviously requires the SNS to respond with urgency. But long-term solutions are better developed mindfully from the PSNS.

The news on climate change is relentless and mostly focused on the negative impacts. This tends to raise stress and kick the amygdala and the SNS constantly. Society needs solutions and visions for a sustainable future in order to balance the SNS response and keep us in the PSNS as much as possible. Mindfulness of the PSNS must guide our every action from turning on the faucet for brushing our teeth in the morning to turning off the light at night for bedtime. We need fundamental and comprehensive behavioral changes. Such changes can provoke stress, arousing the SNS. We have to find our way back quickly to PSNS so we can rest and digest the impacts of our action, and respond with mindful actions each day.

We ignore our psychological impacts of climate change at our own peril. It is not just the fight or flight response that the SNS tends to engender. It also can produce the freeze response and that is the most prevalent "wait-and-see" attitude towards climate change that we see even from the richest of countries like the United States and Canada. 

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The freeze response is almost appropriate for farmers in developing countries who have low incomes and who sometimes pay the price for the excesses of the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) countries, since the people with fewer resources hardly contributed to the mess we are in. 

Sadly, the nouveau riche of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) also are living up to the same standards of consumption as the WEIRD nations. So we all are in it now, with total consumption almost certain to trend upward in the coming decades. Most of the poor are forced to live in the SNS and it is mostly the climate variability and the extreme events they have to worry about. Can we expect them to worry about 2030 or 2050 when most don't even know where their next meal is coming from?

In the meantime, many people and organizations are trying to change the world and save the planet. But PSNS may help us realize the real meaning of what the poet Rumi meant when he said: "Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself."

Wisdom comes from the PSNS and not from SNS. The poor may have no choice but the rich can at least begin to rest and digest the consequences of their actions and mindfully steer towards a habitable planet for all.

The author's most recent Op-Ed was, "Pause in Global Warming Comes Served With Unwelcome Side Dishes." This Op-Ed was adapted from "Climate Change Response: Fight or Flight? or Rest and Digest?" on Gudde-Blog. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

University of Maryland