Childhood Trauma linked to Environmentalism as an Adult

Childhood Trauma linked to Environmentalism as an Adult

In an unexpected twist, trauma may increase empathy and civic engagement.

Do you know someone who recycles their plastic forks, (or flat-out refuses to use them), buys all their clothing used and doesn’t own a car? They aren’t just picky or poor. These friends, family members, and acquaintances are often environmental advocates. They are strong believers in living right to save the planet and they exist in altruistic ways for the benefit of future generations. It might seem like these people have the ability to see into the future with greater clarity than the rest of us. According to a new study, they also may be more likely to have experienced childhood trauma. 

Public engagement and early experiences

A study done by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder surveyed 450 American adults. Their goal was to examine people who engage in civic causes and display “green behavior”. Civic engagement was measured in how many hours participants devoted to environmental protection causes each month. This included writing letters to officials and donating time and resources to organizations. Researchers also examined how people acted to benefit the environment in their private life by recycling and adopting other green habits and behaviors such as taking shorter showers.  

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It was found that people who had experienced childhood trauma were more likely to engage in both private green behavior and public environment engagement. It isn’t known why trauma at a young age can result in this but some researchers feel it may have to with developing a stronger sense of empathy. 

“It suggests that there could be another way of looking at trauma,” said the study’s lead author Urooj Raja, who is now an assistant professor at Loyola University in Chicago. 

Spending time in nature and traveling also made a difference

The study also showed that participants who had traveled as a child or spent regular time in nature were also more likely to engage in behavior that benefited the environment. 

Only childhood trauma, however, made people significantly more likely to be associated with public, civic engagement. 

“It emerged as a very powerful piece of why people wanted to and became engaged with environmental work,” said Raja.

Researchers in this study say many students and professionals working in environmental fields struggle with the demands of their work. They also deal with the life experiences that led them to their chosen profession.

“It’s emotionally intense and exhausting. You’re talking about a community of people that seem to be carrying other kinds of emotionally complex burdens,” noted Amanda Carrico. Carrico is co-author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder.

The healing power of nature

Many people may be trying to save the environment, and while at it, nature is in turn healing them. According to an article on, being in nature is a pathway to inner peace. Time spent in trees reduces our stress and calms an overactive mind.  Being in nature can even reduce inflammation and stabilize your heart rate. 

So,  if you feel inspired, confront your inner trouble with a hike or a day on the beach. And join the local environmental group if you feel a calling to do so: you might find like-minded individuals with more in common than you think. 

photo credits: d.ee_angelo/

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