STRESS
August 31, 2011

The Emotional Cost of a Bad Economy

What you can do to cope with the stress of financial hardship – emotionally and practically.

October 2011 will mark the three-year anniversary of some of the worst weeks in stock market history since 1929. As many people know or have experienced firsthand, unemployment rates are at near-record highs, and according to a recent report, one in 611 housing units is in foreclosure. New graduates are being met with a grim welcome to the job market, and many retirees are going back to work part- or full-time.

Navigating the conditions we find ourselves in can be unpleasant at best, and at worst, it can cause one to feel anxious, depressed, hopeless, fearful, and ineffectual. As a result, the state of the economy can affect us physically, leading to mental and physical health issues. As people’s stress levels rise, sleep deteriorates, agitation peaks, and fuses shorten.

The bottom line is this: you may not be able to change your situation overnight, but you can change your attitude about it.

Chronic emotional stress can wreak havoc on the body on many levels. While it’s easy to get sucked into your problems and feel defined by them, people can cope with unpleasant, even dire, circumstances. New research into happiness and coping offers proof of the value of finding a way to remain distanced from problems in order to tackle them effectively. We asked Gretchen Rubin, author of New York Times best selling book, The Happiness Project; Dr. Alan Manevitz, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center; and Dr. Jason Eric Schiffman, of the UCLA Anxiety Disorders Program at the Stewart & Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital, David Geffen School of Medicine and the Editor in Chief of Anxiety.org, to discuss how to do this.

The stakes are high. According to Dr. Schiffman, "Some degree of anxiety surrounding finances is normal for most of us. In the current economic climate, however, many people are experiencing a degree of financial stress and anxiety that is unlike anything they have experienced before...[Foreclosure] is one of the most severe stressors one can experience, financial or otherwise."

But the bottom line is this: you may not be able to change your situation overnight, but you can change your attitude about it. Doing so not only makes you feel less depressed in a moment-to-moment way, but it helps you think more clearly so that you can tackle your problems more efficiently. Rubin underlines that "even if you don’t think you can feel happy, you might be able to feel happier. Keeping yourself as serene, energetic, and cheerful as possible will make it easier to handle this tough situation." Here are some specific tips from both experts on how to weather the economy, undertake your problems, and build happiness at the same time.

Make a Game Plan

Manevitz suggests that taking the most pragmatic — but not pessimistic — approach to your situation is the way to go. This advice can be particularly useful for people who are out of work and looking for a new position. Sit down and draw up a detailed plan, he says. For example, rather than sleeping in and applying for jobs sporadically throughout the day, set your alarm and get up early, just as you would if you were working. Make looking for a job your job. Take a lunch break, and then get back to it.

Manevitz also urges people to go over finances with a fine-toothed comb: create a realistic budget for you and your family to live on, and cut all unnecessary expenses where you can. He adds that it’s important to revise your situation continually, as different variables change from time to time. For example, if your job is stable but your wife’s hours or salary gets cut or bumped up even by a little, make the appropriate adjustments in your living expenses.

rather than sleeping in and applying for jobs sporadically throughout the day, set your alarm and get up early, just as you would if you were working. Make looking for a job your job.

Having a calculated, pragmatic approach does not mean being pessimistic, says Manevitz. Getting down about being unemployed and punishing yourself for it only serves to reduce your ability to be effective and prolong the situation. While your circumstances may not be ideal, it’s important to think clear-headedly and critically about it in order to have the best shot at changing it.

Stay Connected to Others

It can be awfully easy to retreat into yourself when difficult times arise — especially job loss — but it is incredibly important to keep yourself connected to those around you. This is important for psychological and professional reasons. Rubin says, "you may not feel like going out, making plans, showing up, or talking to other people. But prod yourself to make the effort. Seeing other people will give you a boost and will help distract you. Also, by staying connected to other people, you’re more likely to hear information and to create relationships that might be helpful in the jobs arena."

Then there's the saying that misery loves company. Knowing that others are experiencing loss, stress, and fear about the future may not make it better, but at least you know it’s not just you, says Manevitz. So as much as you may not feel like it, get out there: support to old connections and build new ones. Once you’ve reached out once or twice, doing so in the future will feel less objectionable and more natural to you.

Find New Ways to Progress

While you may feel that certain areas in your life are stagnating or losing ground, it often helps to move other parts of your life forward to help get you out of an unproductive mindset. Producing something, whether it’s a work of art or a new skill, can serve as a catalyst for other things: if you get into the mindset of change in one area of your life, other areas, like a job or finances, are more likely to follow suit.

"You may feel like you’ve been pushed a giant step backward; that you’re out of control of what’s happening to you. Look for a place where you can move forward and take control," suggests Rubin. She offers some specific suggestions on different ways to do this.

  • Learn to do something new — a new software program, watercolors.
  • Conquer a device — master your camera, a kitchen gadget.
  • Clean something up — your messy garage, your attic.
  • Create something beautiful — plant a garden, catch up on the photo albums.

Though it may sound hokey, positive actions tend to have a domino effect. Doing just one or two little acts to move forward can help you get out of the rut and give you some momentum.

Hone Your Coping Skills

Manevitz suggests that learning to cope with your stress is particularly important when it comes to economic situations, because they have such tangible ramifications. "With 9/11," he says, "there was this kind of stress, but it was perceived stress. Now, everybody is dealing with the reality of what’s happening. Coping skills become critical." Don't let this idea scare you: it is simply meant to underline the importance of coping, which is a good skill to have at any time in your life. Working through your stress so you are in charge of it rather than the other way around is the goal. The method that you choose to do this is simply the one that you discover works best for you.

Of course, one of the first things to do to cope with stress is to recognize the warning signs of stress and depression in the first place.

Fundamental things like exercising, sleeping, and eating right will help you feel better physically and mentally, both experts agree. Rubin says that "not getting enough sleep affects your mood more than you may realize. It makes difficult situations seem harder, drags down your energy, and lowers your immune system." And, she adds, "exercise both calms you and energizes you. If you can’t face going to the gym or going for a run, just go for a ten-minute walk outside. The sunlight and the movement will boost your spirits."

Of course, one of the first things to do to cope with stress is to recognize the warning signs of stress and depression in the first place. "Excessive alcohol use, changes in sleep patterns, drugs or medication use, physical complaints, appetite changes, problems concentrating, increasing isolation, alienation, feelings of hopelessness, and new marital conflicts" are all signs of depression and anxiety according to Manevitz.

If you find that your problems are larger than you can cope with using at-home methods, there’s no shame in seeing a professional to guide you. Various forms of therapy and/or medication may be necessary to help you through. In addition to therapists, other professionals – like life coaches, social workers, or career counselors – can be extremely beneficial in helping you navigate through uncertain times. Many offer sliding fee scales and some may be available through your health plan.

Distract Yourself — and Then Get Back to It

As important as it is to be businesslike and hardworking in the face of economic stress, it is also important to give yourself a break. After spending time developing some job leads and pursuing them, plan to do something else for a while. Rather than obsessing about your problems, take your mind off them and revisit them later. Doing so will help you feel fresher and more capable when you return to the issues at hand. Our minds tend to linger obsessively on the problems in our lives, which can lead to ineffectual problem-solving and shoddy execution. Taking a little break helps us see the forest for the trees (as long as you don’t use the break to avoid your problems altogether!).

According to Rubin, "One of the Ten Myths of Happiness is that a ‘treat’ will cheer you up. That cigarette, that extra glass of wine, that new pair of shoes, that extra brownie (or two, or three), that big mess in your kitchen because you don’t want to deal with loading the dishwasher…will these treats really make you feel happy, in the long run? Or will you be happier if you don’t treat yourself?"

Rubin advises people to "rent a funny movie, re-read a book you love (I always re-read children's literature when I'm under stress), call a friend with a good sense of humor, visit a museum, or watch some sports on TV. Let yourself take a break from your worries. When you come back to them, you’ll feel refreshed and with a better sense of perspective."

Be Wary of "Treating" Yourself to the Wrong Rewards.
Remember that there’s a fine line between giving yourself a chance to recharge and indulging yourself. Getting through tough times does not mean grabbing a beer or a doughnut because you "deserve" it or need a little pick-me-up. Though it feels good in the short run, doing this is actually a way of checking out of your problems, rather than approaching them. According to Rubin, "one of the Ten Myths of Happiness is that a ‘treat’ will cheer you up. That cigarette, that extra glass of wine, that new pair of shoes, that extra brownie (or two, or three), that big mess in your kitchen because you don’t want to deal with loading the dishwasher…will these treats really make you feel happy, in the long run? Or will you be happier if you don’t treat yourself?" If you need a little treat, and we all do, make sure it’s a healthy one: go outside with a cup of tea and breath in some fresh air to reward yourself with a soak in the tub. But don’t eat a bag of Cheetos as a "reward."

Help Someone Else

Though it sounds counterintuitive, giving to someone else when you feel like you need so much yourself can be incredibly good for the psyche. Rubin says that if you’re suffering from low self-esteem, doing something for another person can "remind yourself of how much you have to give. Teach someone something useful. Make helpful connections for other people. Volunteer your skills. Donate blood. Go through your closets and give away the clothes you don’t need. If you can’t face doing anything else, you can at least sign up to be an organ donor. It takes one minute, and you have potentially saved the lives of five people. You can feel great about your day if you’ve done that!" One positive movement leads to another, so start small – help an elderly neighbor in their yard or make a meal for a friend – and build from there.

Work on Gaining a Broader Perspective

Psychologists often talk about emotion-focused and problem-focused coping as two ways of responding to stress. Emotion-focused coping refers to what you do to keep your spirits up and your depression and anxiety in check when confronting a stressful situation. It may involve many of the suggestions we've seen already — exercise, re-appraising the situation, seeking social support from others, distracting ourselves or helping others.

In clearing away physical clutter, we have a sense of gaining a leg up on our situation.

Problem-focused coping is about the actions you take to try to change the situation: keeping to a daily routine, writing a resume, working on developing contacts or reducing expenses. One element common to both approaches is the idea of keeping a broader sense of perspective about the economic issues you face, so that you are emotionally calm and open enough to think of solutions to your problems that might otherwise escape you.

Cut the Clutter
A good trick to kicking your personal and professional life into gear is by cleaning up your physical world, a tactic that brings both emotion-focused and problem-focused results. Gretchen Rubin found that "for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm — and clearing clutter seems to have a disproportionately positive effect. Bringing order to a messy coat closet shouldn’t make much of a difference to happiness, but for some reason, it gives a much bigger boost than you might expect." This may in part be because in clearing away physical clutter, we have a sense of gaining a leg up on our situation.

It is important not to take on too much, and get frustrated in the process. Says Rubin, "Be careful not to overwhelm yourself. Pick one small area of the messy kitchen counter, or clean out your fridge, or tackle one corner of your desk. Bringing order to your physical environment will help calm you." Clearing space in your physical environment can help pave the way for larger changes in your life.

Practice Gratitude for What You Have
Rubin says that appreciating what you do have is an important exercise, psychologically speaking, because it draws you away from the negative in your life. "You may have lost your job, but think about what's going right in your life, what you have to feel grateful for. It's a cliché to say ‘Count your blessings,’ but it really does boost happiness." It’s well known that focusing on your problems — whether it’s an aching joint, a recent break up, or a loss of income — makes them appear worse because your attention amplifies them.

Shifting your attention away from the negative things in your life and redirecting it to the positive things will help put things in perspective and lessen the pain of the unpleasant aspects. Being grateful for what you have can also help you remain steadier emotionally. Says Schiffman, "In the midst of financial problems it is normal to feel anxious, particularly when a clear solution is not apparent. At these times, remembering the truly valuable, non-monetary things you have, such as friends and family, can help put the current sitaution in perspective and reduce anxiety."

In a similar vein, Manevitz says that even if you are unhappy with your job or with your boss, don’t be too quick to rock the boat — in other words, be careful about throwing it all away. He says, "If you’re in a job, mind yourself! Don’t tell off boss in these times. Stop, think, and clear your head." People who have jobs are in relatively good situations, so it’s important to take that into serious consideration before you make a major move. (At the very least, secure another job before you tell off the boss!)

Facing Hardship and Finding Growth

Perhaps the ultimate perspective is to realize that hardship has shaped people for centuries through wars, persecution, and natural catastrophes. Such difficult times have historically paved the way for growth. The same is true on a personal level. Finding ways to handle the stress of economic hard times will make you stronger if you let it.

While sticking to the original plan may be what you want right now, sometimes reconfiguring it is the necessary route to take in the long run.

Manevitz advises people to go "old school" in getting through tough times in one piece. "Eat with the neighbors, play charades and card games to entertain yourselves, and go back to old-fashioned values." Being happy doesn’t always involve the quantities of money and extravagance that we think it does. Sitting around your neighbor’s kitchen table laughing over a home-cooked meal can trump going out to a fancy restaurant any day, if you’re with the right people.

Rather than pay $12 for a ticket to a movie, why not rent a movie or watch online, and make a (healthy) pizza for dinner? By the same token, for some weekend entertainment, go to a museum that is either free or operates with a "suggested donation." Many cities have free concerts in the park during the summer, community yoga, or talks and lectures that are open to the public. Finding ways you can make do with less for your and entertainment and dining needs is another form of problem-focused coping and makes it a lot easier to.

Be Prepared to Change
As many people have experienced, life can change in the blink of an eye. As much as we may want to hold onto the past, our previous lifestyles and old routines, sometimes life dictates a new route, and a new plan.

Manevitz tells of a young man, whose mother had to move in with him when her finances crumbled. The young man was a graduate student at the time, living on limited resources himself. Having the new responsibility of his mother living with him was taking a serious toll on his health and well-being. Though he desperately wanted to finish grad school, Manevitz says that the best advice to someone young and in his position is not to continue on with his previous plan, but to re-conceive it.

Rather than hanging on by his fingernails or failing out of school, Manevitz says his recommendation would be to take a year off, work, and reassess. Graduate school will still be there. While sticking to the original plan may be what you want right now, sometimes reconfiguring it is the necessary route to take in the long run.

The economy has a serious impact on our lives and well-being. Manevitz points out that financial stressors are among the top five stressors of all time. "We’re getting cold education about how we’re always living on the edge," he says, "without savings for rainy day. A large majority of population is finding out how vulnerable they really are to the economy."

Using a methodical approach to your problems, taking small breathers from them, teaming up with others and branching out, and using little changes in your life to catalyze bigger changes are some of the best-proven methods to finding your way. Take heart: the economy is improving, and things are changing. We’re all in this together, and using the best psychological tools we have will give us the best shot at getting through in one piece. With luck, we’ll also have a few laughs with old friends and gain some new strengths and perspective along the way.

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