Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in an independent practice in Sausalito, California. Since 1981, his work has focused ...Read More
The recent downturn in the economy is affecting everyone along the economic spectrum. Although it’s a word that is often over-used, we are all experiencing a tremendous amount of stress lately. How many people have told you, “I’m feeling stressed out,” or “I am really scared about the future,” or “I am so anxious about our financial situation?” You would be hard-pressed to find anyone, rich or poor, who isn’t feeling some level of angst about the current economic situation facing our country, and the world. Although the poor and working class in our society are always disproportionately affected by the economic downturns in history, I don’t know anyone personally or professionally that has not been affected in some significant ways. If people are not worried about what is happening to them right now, they are worried about what may happen in the future. With the gridlock and political battles going on in Washington, as well as many state capitals across the country, there is a lot of generalized anxiety in our society. And although there are occasional signs to be hopeful about as well, the constant barrage of bad news is likely to overshadow at times any positive feelings about the potential for positive change.
How bad is it?
The American Psychological Association conducted a survey in April and September 2008 to look at the sources, impact and solutions to stress. It’s no surprise that people rated money and the economy as the two most significant stressors in their lives. This was followed by other stressors, such as; work, health problems, family responsibilities, housing costs, relationships, health concerns, job stability and personal safety. All of these areas increased between April and September 2008 for over 50% of the people surveyed, and as many as 30% rated their average stress level as extreme. And this survey was taken before the markets completely fell apart. Although the vast majority of the respondents stated that they were dealing with the stress somewhat or very well, many reported physical and emotional symptoms that were having a negative impact on their personal and professional lives. Almost half of those surveyed stated that they were not doing enough or not sure if they were doing enough to manage the stress in their lives. Although men and women both report being stressed by the economy, women seem to report feeling more stress. This could be due to the rising number of women balancing work with family responsibilities, increasing number of single mother households or because they are socialized to admit more to their emotional reactions. But regardless of the reasons, American men and women are both experiencing a great deal of distress about the current economy and this distress can potentially affect their health, relationships, as parents and at work.
To Make Matters Worse
What is happening in society today, with massive lay-offs, retirement plans disappearing, companies going out of business and no end in sight, is something of a mass social trauma. But unlike other traumas that are generally short-lived, this trauma is on-going, and therefore the potential for it causing cumulative psychological stress in many people is greatly increased. In my practice, people are talking about their fears in ways that has only been matched by the aftermath of September 11th. The current economic crisis is triggering particular personal issues for many people. For example, individuals who grew-up post depression, might have received many anxiety-ridden messages about money from their parents. The present-day situation could bring back those anxiety-fill memories and those emotions can get played out with family members around negotiating finances. Clients who grew up in poverty, and who have made it to middle-class can be tremendously afraid of losing everything they have achieved. There are many people who grew up middle class, but where money was a conduit for transferring family anxiety. These individuals may discover themselves ruminating about money, unable to sleep or focusing all the anxiety in their lives on money. People whose family economic status dramatically changed when their parents got divorced, could be feeling particularly powerless in the face of this economic meltdown. Individuals who have experienced the powerlessness and hopelessness of childhood abuse may be having those experiences resurface and intensify their feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness about the economy. Obviously, people who have already lost their jobs, savings, home or investments, or have family and friends in this position, are experiencing the greatest levels of anxiety and worry.
So the past can make the present even more difficult. This is an important fact to remember, because as I will explain latter, keeping these two separate (past and present emotions) is critical to reducing the effects of stress and anxiety about the current economy.
To complicate matters, although most people deal with emotional stress in constructive ways, many people don’t. So, if before the crisis someone was drinking or using drugs to manage stress, the current situation may only make that tendency worse. Likewise, if someone was experiencing irritability and anger to the point of being explosive or hurtful towards others, the stress caused by the economic meltdown could only make that person more prone to explosions of anger. If someone had any one of a number of problems with relationships (communication difficulties, commitment issues, etc.) before this disaster, it is possible that those problems may only get worse due to the emotional stress they are experiencing. Some people may not have been experiencing any noticeably problems, but the current crisis may have just taxed them beyond their usual coping mechanisms. When we get stressed we typically turn to those coping strategies that are most familiar – and sometimes, these strategies are not the healthiest ones. Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring a person to recognize that they need help in changing their stress-coping strategies.
Managing Stress and Anxiety
So what can the average person do to manage their anxiety and stress level? Fortunately, there are concrete things you can do to reduce effects of the stress even if you can’t do anything about the stressor. It is important to separate the stressor from the effects of the stressor. We can’t always do anything about the stressor, but we can reduce its impact on our lives. It will come as no surprise, that the best things to do today are the healthy and constructive things that have worked for you in the past. You may know exactly what to do, and that’s great. However, you may need to expand your idea about self-care in the current climate. Additionally, many people are better at taking care of others than taking care of themselves, or are just not used to thinking about self-care, and therefore need help organizing their thoughts about stress coping strategies.
When I talk with clients about stress-reducing techniques, I suggest organizing strategies into four different areas or categories – physical, psychological, interpersonal and spiritual.
In this blog post, I’m going to cover the physical ways to reduce stress and then next week, I’ll go over the remaining three ways.
Physical exercise or sports are two of the most common ways people manage stress in their lives. For those who already have incorporated it into their lives, it’s like a religion for them. It is as important as eating and sleeping. But for those who are not physically active, it takes a real effort to generate enthusiasm about getting out there. The problem and great thing with physical activity, is that it takes effort to do it, but once you get into the habit, it reinforces itself with the good physical and psychological feelings you get in return. Unfortunately, many people don’t get into a program long enough to experience those positive feelings. Some people find having a trainer or joining a gym, with all its facilities, provides enough structure to start a physical exercise program. Though if finances are a concern, this could only make matters worse – especially if you don’t go all that often. I recommend client’s starting with something simple – like walking more. Don’t underestimate the value of walking more and eating well. But regardless of what you do, regular exercise is a good way of managing stress.
There is abundant evidence that meditation, yoga and other eastern practices not only make people feel better, but they can actually change the brain. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin say that people with a compassionate and positive outlook on the world have different brain patterns from people who are negativistic, angry and distrustful. What is most interesting is that they found that you could change those brain patterns, which result in a more positive outlook on the world, through mindfulness training. So, if you want to reduce the anxiety associated with the economy, try meditating, taking a yoga class or learning mindfulness.
Another physical activity for reducing the effects of stress is getting a massage or spa treatments. You may be the kind of person who has trouble talking about your feelings. Because emotion is experienced in our bodies, a skilled massage therapist can help you to release the emotion without having to think and use words. Two thirds of those who use these techniques, swear by them as stress reducers. There are actually a number of software programs and devices on the market that can help you start meditative and mindfulness practices without emptying your pocketbook. If you have gadgets, like the iPhone or iPad there are meditation and mindfulness applications, albums and music videos on the iTunes Music Store for very little money. Many gyms and community centers also offer yoga and meditation classes for people of all ages.
Come back next week, when I cover psychological, interpersonal and spiritual ways to reduce stress.
Editor’s Note: You can find Part II located here.