Coping with Stress and Anxiety as the Market Melts Down

The news is filled with stories documenting the overwhelming stress and anxiety being experienced by the American people and brought on by the meltdown of financial markets: "Most Americans Stressed-Out by Economy." "Housing Pain Gauge: Nearly 1 in 6 Owners ‘Under Water'." "Retirement Savings Lose $2 Trillion in 15 Months."

Unless you are some kind of environmental lunatic -- or Al Gore -- it is rather hard to take heart in the current economic woes and their global impact.

As I watched a comma disappear from my own retirement savings, this disaster was brought home to me in a very personal way and caused me to reflect on my own economic fantasies and less-than-thrifty spending habits.

It is well known that financial stress is linked to a variety of physical and mental health problems. Even in the best of economic times, many people have to deal with money problems or stress about whether they'll keep their jobs or their houses; but with the mortgage and credit crisis, the rising cost of gas and food, and the startling stock market decline, more Americans than ever are feeling financial angst.

While I don't want to ignore the (perfectly just and appropriate) suffering of all the wonderful Congressional and Wall Street types whose really incredibly bad judgment has made a bad situation much worse (you can be sure that at this very moment, those responsible for the disaster are busy covering their asses -- and their own pocketbooks -- by spending even more millions of our money to "fix" a problem they created and promoted for many years), I would like to primarily focus on Main Street, i.e., those of us whose financial and electoral judgment were merely shortsighted, irresponsible, and perhaps a bit reckless. How you view the crisis will have a lot to do with how well you adapt to and survive (or not) the devastation.

The key point is: Don't think of yourself as a victim.

Ours may well be the Great Age of Therapeutic Sensitivity (sometimes referred to as therapeutic psychobabble) and the Golden Age of Victimhood, where a preponderance of the population believes that no one should ever have to suffer any untoward consequences as a result of their choices -- a sort of "get out of responsibility free" card -- and where competing victim groups vie for attention and remuneration for their suffering. Many such groups go even further by demanding that they be rewarded for their bad choices and decisions. In short, these pity groups give real victims a bad reputation. While it all seems rather nonsensical (and exceedingly counterproductive), in the halls of Congress such thinking is rather typical.

The attitude that we are all helpless victims of the "system" and that the all-powerful and all-good government is always there to help and protect us from ourselves and all the horrible capitalist oppressors out there is one popular way to look at the current mess. The same politicians who got us into this mess are now actively promising to make all the pain go away so that neither they nor you have to change your behavior at all!

This sensibility permeates the culture to such an extent that it grossly interferes with real psychological health and functional coping mechanisms. In fact, in my profession, it is this type of thinking that becomes the major impediment preventing patients with serious psychiatric and emotional problems from being able to take any sort of control over their own lives.

As for non-patients, just trying to cope with the various stresses of life and deal with their anxiety about the future, it promotes a passivity and the sinking feeling that you are merely a helpless victim of forces outside your control.

Of course, to some extent, you are. Everyone is. But that fundamental reality doesn't mean you cannot take steps to reclaim your life and your future despite financial or any other kind of setbacks. Keep that in mind as we review what stress actually is and some of the healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with the current financial crisis.

Stress

These days we hear a lot about "coping with stress" and about how "stress" is behind all sorts of medical and psychological problems. Of course, what is really meant by this is that there are many unpleasant and difficult situations in life that we must respond to in order to live our lives, and that if we don't respond well, we can get sick.

In its simplest form, "stress" is nothing more than the physiological consequences of a frustrated or short-circuited "fight or flight" response to threats or danger.

Our bodies, which have not changed much since the days of the caveman, are hardwired to respond to danger or the perception of danger in certain ways. Either we "gird our loins" and stand and fight the danger or we take flight and run away from it to live another day. These two basic strategies covered pretty much every option that our ancestors possessed to survive and they lived or died depending on how effectively they were able to utilize one or the other strategy.

In our modern world, it is usually no longer appropriate -- or even civilized -- to employ either hardwired option. Imagine, if you will, the office worker called on the carpet by his boss, who reacts to this threat to his livelihood by punching the boss or by running screaming from the boss's office.

Neither response would be considered very stable; nor would it be very adaptive in today's world.