Surviving a Stre$$ful Economy
Our country is
facing the kind
crisis we haven't
the Great Depression, and you're probably worried about your financial security.
Learn how to protect yourself against the psychological and physical fallout.
First the housing market imploded, then the banks stumbled, then sales of cars and other durable goods fell with an ominous thud. As a result layoffs have ravaged some of the country's biggest corporate icons: 10,000 jobs lost at Boeing, 10,000 at GM, 7,200 at Caterpillar, 6,700 at Starbucks.
The federal government counted nearly 4.8 million Americans receiving unemployment benefits at the end of January, with no end in sight.
You can find the victims of an economy in free fall everywhere. Emily, 56, and Marie, 47, were both among 50 people laid off in December from the IT department of a New York electronics firm. Even as they seek career counseling at a suburban New York State Labor Department office, Emily and Marie (who asked that their last names not be used) both fear that they are overqualified in whatever is left of today's job market. As Emily puts it, "Age is against us. Our experience is against us. We understand we have to take cuts in salary." Marie adds, "We're re-learning how to interview."
Comparisons have been drawn between the current crisis and the Great Depression - and with good reason. "We haven't seen anything of this magnitude for 70 years," says Barry Shore, PhD, professor of decision sciences at Whittemore School of Business and Economics, University of New Hampshire.
Some people are drowning in economically driven fear. One of them was Ervin Lupoe of Wilmington, California; both he and his wife, Ana, had lost their jobs at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center. Police say that on the night of January 27 Lupoe shot his wife and five children before killing himself the next morning. Between the mortgage company and the IRS the Lupoes owed $17,500, with thousands more on a home equity credit line.
Such tragic stories may be rare but the effects of economic stress are not. In a 2007 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), 74% of Americans rated work as a "significant source" of stress, with money right behind at 73%. This was before the current crisis started; it would be hard to imagine that those figures are any lower now.
As grim as they are, unemployment numbers tell only part of the story. According to a survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), nearly 60% of all Americans 45 and older have lost money on their investments, including their 401(k)s, and over 30% believe their jobs may disappear within the year. Many people are watching their retirement dreams fade like a mirage in the desert. For those who are already retired, "are they going to be able to afford to stay retired?" asks David Irwin, senior communications director at AARP's Chicago office.
Workers who have survived the layoffs are often affected by layoff survivor syndrome or what Shore calls post downsizing stress syndrome (PDSS), which he says differs from regular job stress. "PDSS is widespread throughout an organization, is pervasive across industries and is prolonged," Shore explains. "You may still be in your job but your work friends are gone and there's more to do than there was before."
And then there's that excruciating wait for the other shoe to drop. "The people who are left behind are told, 'That's just the first wave,'" says Kathleen Hall, ThD, founder of The Stress Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. Some people feel survivor's guilt at seeing workmates let go while they remain employed. Other workers actually envy those who were laid off for being out of such a stressful situation.
Researchers know that even ordinary job pressures exact a health toll. In one study, middle-aged men in high-stress jobs - subject to many demands but allowed little control - were more than twice as likely to suffer a stroke as men in lower-stress positions (Archives of Internal Medicine 1/12/09). This follows a series of investigations that have linked job strain to higher blood pressure, reduced immune function, higher levels of cortisol (the body's main stress hormone), more obesity and a greater risk of both depression and heart disease.
When you add the pressures of the current economic climate to regular job strain the result is worrisome:
In a December 2008 AARP survey, 20% of all people age 45 and over said they have health problems caused by financial stress. "If this isn't dealt with we're going to see
the next big public health crisis," says Nancy Molitor, PhD, a psychologist from the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Illinois, and a public
education coordinator with the APA. "Physical and emotional health are very much related."
Under a Dark Cloud
Molitor's concerns stem from what she and her colleagues are seeing in their practices. "We've never seen this level of anxiety, depression and, quite frankly, despair," she says. "People are starting to lose their hope, especially if they've been laid off and they can't find a job."
Emily and Marie know the effects of stress first-hand. "We're sleeping a lot more," Emily says. "The depression is definitely there. It's physically affecting me - the nerves. It just goes to my stomach all the time."
Emily's symptoms aren't unusual. Headaches, increased heart rate, muscle tension and digestive disturbances are all common stress responses. Jana N. Martin, PhD, a Long Beach, California, psychologist, sees many patients who are sleeping poorly and constantly tired. "If you are worrying about how you're going to pay the bills, you can end up exhausted because your energy is being channeled into that worrying," she says.
Unrelieved anxiety can create lasting mood disturbances. "When this first became a crisis in the fall, I was seeing anxiety and panic," Molitor says of her patients. "That anxiety is now being replaced by depression." Some people fall victim to catastrophic thinking. If a co-worker gets laid off, Martin says that such individuals will tell themselves, "'Oh no, I'm next. I'm going to lose my job, my house, I'll have to move in with my mother…' and they just go into a downward spiral."
Different people respond to stress in different ways, not all of them healthy. Some drink and smoke more. According to the APA stress survey, 65% of the respondents turned to candy and other refined carbohydrates when they felt stressed. That can lead to weight gain, itself a health hazard. In addition, stress can result in impulsive decision-making. Martin says some people are "trying to sell their house when they don't have to. They may sell it impulsively instead of taking wise financial counsel."
Economic woes tend to affect men and women differently. In general "men tend to have more of their identity tied up in their profession," says Martin, making male job loss "a source of embarrassment." Women "are more affected by the emotional angst of what's going on," says Judith Orloff, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (Harmony Books). Hall says that for women, "the workplace becomes more of a family. Women lose a huge emotional support when they get laid off."
A pressurized economy affects relationships. Resentment can build between a spouse who has been laid off and one who's employed; Marie said she was critical when her husband was let go and she was still working. "You start thinking, 'What have you done today to look for a job?'" If both have been laid off, men and women who have spent days apart may chafe at forced togetherness - especially if each is suffering their own private grief for a job lost.
Economic fear coupled with marital strain can affect children. "Kids are little energy absorbers," Orloff explains. "If you model someone who's trying to find their center during stress, they will see that. If you're totally freaking out, they'll learn that as well." Children may also blame themselves for a parent's problems.
Finding the Light
The first step to overcoming economic stress is to avoid being caught up in the prevailing gloom. In a workplace where morale has sunk, "it's easy to hang around with your friends and be part of the feeding frenzy," says Shore. "That is not productive for you, your job or your future." Martin suggests "turning off the TV more often or not reading all the stories about foreclosures, disasters and suicides."
It's important to maintain the motivation that's so easy to lose during times of fearful uncertainty, especially if the layoff axe strikes. "A lot of people, when they lose a job, want to sit in bed and pull the covers over their head," says Molitor. "People can't afford to wallow." Orloff recommends taking "small, doable steps towards a positive outcome, even if it's just opening the classified ads and looking at them." Budget planning not only lets you come to grips with your finances but can also provide "a sense of control and helps you to see the light at the end of the tunnel," Martin says. If you received a severance package, Molitor suggests investing some of it in career retraining for when the economy recovers.
A loss of income can actually become an opportunity to follow your life's passion - but only if you let it. "You have to develop courage," says Orloff. "It means going toward something in spite of fear." Hall suggests using affirmations, "such as 'I am strong, I am grateful for life' - your brain believes what you say to it." Music and laughter are other proven ways to break up stress and find serenity.
Working on your inner resources is the prelude to outreach towards others. "Do you have any special talents, such as cooking or woodworking? Do you like meditation, or are you fascinated with cars and mechanics?" Hall asks. "Find groups that form around these things and network. E-mail all the buddies you had at the company you worked for and get together once a week." Emily and Marie both say they find tremendous support in each other, making career counseling appointments and going through job listings together.
Use these troubled times to reconnect with your mate. Be kind to one another - this is difficult for both of you. Emily says that she and Marie "can empathize with our husbands," and that hers has looked over her resume and provided sound advice. "This kind of thing can either tear you apart," she says, "or build a stronger relationship."
Reach out to your children, too. "Have a family meeting once a week for at least 10 minutes," says Hall. "You have to say, 'There's hope because we have a plan and we're going to work our way out of this.'" Involve the kids: Can we raise money by babysitting or dog walking? Can we cut back on our cable channels or make our own pizza on Friday night instead of going out?
A healthy lifestyle can help you ward off the ill effects of stress. "Eating breakfast is the biggest mood changer," says Hall. "Never skip breakfast." She suggests taking omega-3 fatty acids, which have been associated with reductions in depression, and getting plenty of vitamin B6, which helps the body produce a depression-fighting chemical called serotonin. Orloff recommends taking the minerals calcium and magnesium together to promote calm and improve sleep.
Exercise also helps bust depression. The problem, according to Hall, is that "we make exercise into work - we need to make it play." She says to find an exercise buddy who will get you moving every day. Some of that playful activity should take place outdoors. "Exposure to sunlight elevates your mood by stimulating your brain to produce serotonin," says Orloff. If stress has caused your muscles to tense, Orloff suggests progressive relaxation: Start by letting your body go limp and then tightening your toes, counting to 10 and relaxing. Work your way up your body.
Self-help is important. But don't feel as if you have to go it alone, especially if depression is tightening its grip. "Reach out and let people help you," urges Martin. "There's no need to feel shame and embarrassment because you're struggling." Physical signs of depression include loss of appetite and continued sleep disturbances; emotionally, women often get teary while men can become irritable and angry. Seek immediate help if you have thoughts of harming yourself or others (some therapy centers offer fees on a sliding scale if cost is a concern).
The best response to economic turmoil is hope and kindness, for yourself and for others. "Renewal is never easy," says Shore. "But I've been through eight recessions, and we come out stronger every time."