The bad news just keeps coming. The economy is reeling, the national jobless rate (nearly 7 percent) is the highest it's been in over a decade, and forget about holiday gifts: most people will just be grateful if they don't get pink slips in their stockings. And it could be worse: Just ask any of the thousands of people from celebs to senior citizens who gave their life savings to Bernard Madoff, the New York City financier who allegedly swindled investors out of an estimated $50 billion in an alleged Ponzi scheme that may have spanned two decades. (And the federal regulators were where when he was doing this?)
How bad is it? Some 80 percent of Americans say the global economic crisis is stressing them out, according to a recent American Psychological Association (APA) survey. In other words, it may be making them sick—literally. Research has shown that anxiety increases the risk of developing heart disease, cancer and many other conditions and may stoke self-destructive behaviors such as smoking, drinking and overeating. But keeping a lid on stress is no easy task when you lose your job, cannot keep up mortgage payments, and discover a huge chunk your retirement savings has evaporated.
ScientificAmerican.com asked some experts how people can emotionally cope in these trying times. Following are five practical tips.
1. Stop constantly checking your 401(k) and other retirement bennies
"Face the facts—but only once per month," advises Robert Leahy, a clinical professor of psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York City. Tracking daily losses in your portfolio only reinforces your belief that things are bad. "Unless you are planning on trading on a daily basis," he notes, "what good will it do you to check daily?"
2. Don't take every news report to heart
Sensational media reports that throw around words such as "Great Depression" and "crisis" tend to encourage what psychologists and psychiatrists call "catastrophic thinking". To tamp down such fears, Leahy says, stick to the facts. "For example," he notes, "the differences between the 1930s and today are the following: Unemployment [was 24 percent at its worst back then and is now nearly 7 percent]; overall level of income is much higher, as is household wealth; we have Social Security, extended unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid. There are active steps (literally, trillions of dollars) being committed to help the situation. We do not have…high tariffs, which made the [Great] Depression even worse." Bottom line: try to keep in mind that "This is not the Great Depression." In other words—things could be much worse.
"People who tend to catastrophize[sic] also tend not to problem-solve," says Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles. If you find yourself unable to keep things in perspective, he advises, write down the worst-case scenario you could encounter and a list of practical things you would do to deal with that situation. This will help you recognize that no matter how dismal your predicament, there are always steps you can take address it, he explains.
3. Consider getting back into the market with a modest investment
Even if you only have a few hundred dollars to spare, think about investing it, Leahy advises. Many hedge fund and investment experts predict the market will go up over the next five years so the value would rise. But perhaps even more important, he says: "Thinking about positive proactive action counters the anxious and depressive feeling that you are helpless." Approaching the economic crisis as an opportunity, not just a bottomless pit of loss, is empowering and helps build confidence, he explains.
4. Try relaxation exercises
Even a spare minute in your hectic schedule is enough time for a quick relaxation exercise, according to Harvard Medical School's free Portable Guide to Stress Relief. Among those activities it recommends: sitting at your desk, breathe slowly in and out. As you inhale, say to yourself, "I am," and as you exhale, say to yourself, "at peace." Repeat the process a few times, and feel your muscles relax. (You might want to close your door, lest your office mates think you've gone mad…)
If you can spare 10 minutes, the guide recommends the following: Use your imagination to transport yourself away from the florescent-lit cubicle or office you currently inhabit. Take a few slow, deep breaths and use your imagination to re-create the sights, sounds, smells and feelings associated with a soothing memory—a day on the beach or a hike in the woods, for example. Focus on the sensory details, like the sound of waves breaking on the shore or the smell of pine trees. If thoughts about your job or financial woes creep into your mind, try to passively observe them as if you were looking at your life from another person's perspective.
But imagining a day at the beach might not cut it if you've lost your job or your savings. So what then?
"I would suggest a body-based strategy," Maidenberg says. People in dire circumstances can benefit immensely from meditation, and you don't necessary have to spend money on classes to learn an effective regimen, he notes. "There are plenty of very good sites…[that] sell CDs and tapes that take a person through the process of learning to relax," says Maidenberg, who recommends a system created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine emeritus from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. There has been a battery of research showing that meditation can reduce stress and improve immune function.
5. Commiserate with friends and family—and check your priorities
"It helps that we are all in this together [and] if people are commiserating, sharing the pain actually does help with it," says David Spiegel, director of the Center on Stress & Health at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif. "Find ways you can help one another. You can sometimes see solutions to your friends' and family [member]'s problems you cannot see for yourself."
You should also make sure your priorities are in order, Maidenberg adds. That is, if you lose a job with a six-figure salary, be willing to settle for one with a lower paycheck, recognizing that it may be temporary. Feel the lower-paying gig is beneath you? Get a grip Maidenberg says. Need reminding? Write a list of what's important in life—and, hopefully, he says, you'll come to realize that other things —say the health of your children—trumps how much money you make.