COPING WITH FINANCIAL STRESS IN THE 21ST
By Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D.
We've been in a recession for a year.
Unemployment in California is at 8.9%. Wall Street is getting bailed out to the
tune of 700 billion dollars. The economic downturn has hurt almost everyone.
Many people are feeling out of control, even
panicky about the possibility of losing their jobs and many have already lost
them. Some have lost their homes and many are anxious and fearful about
suffering a similar fate. Many are hanging on, hoping for a government
People are worried about their retirement nest
eggs, college savings for their children and/or grandchildren, lack of adequate
healthcare insurance, and the high cost of gas and food. There is an atmosphere
of instability and insecurity in the air. People are on edge, anxious, fearful,
and worried. This dark atmosphere has caused a large scale uptick in chronic
According to the World Health Organization,
chronic stress is the number one health problem in the industrialized world.
Stress can cause many major diseases including cancer, heart disease, and
cerebrovascular diseases. It can also cause ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome,
depression, and many other conditions.
Contrary to what many people believe about stress,
it is a physical phenomenon. When under stress, the body produces more of the
stress hormone, cortisol. It is called the stress hormone because it is also
secreted in higher levels during the body's "fight or flight" response to
stress. Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands and is involved in several
important body functions: regulation of blood pressure, proper glucose
metabolism, insulin release, immune function, and inflammatory response.
According to the American Psychological
Association, "The declining state of the nation's economy is taking a physical
and emotional toll on people nationwide. It appears that women are bearing the
brunt of it." When asked about the recent financial crisis, almost half of
Americans say they are increasingly stressed about their ability to provide
their family's basic needs. Eight out of ten say the economy is a significant
cause of stress, up from 66% in April. In one community, San Joaquin County,
California, the women's center has seen a 30% increase in the number of people
seeking emergency shelter, temporary restraining orders, and counseling. This
is a trend that directly relates to the financial stress troubling many of the
It is very important to be aware of your stress
levels and to notice its emotional and physical symptoms. Symptoms include
irritability, sleep difficulty, changes in appetite, headaches, stomach aches
and other intestinal problems, nervousness, excessive worry, and feeling sad or
To manage your anxiety, stay in the present.
Develop a healthier relationship to time. A psychologist by the name of Fritz
Perls asserted that a healthy orientation toward time is 10 to 15% of your
thinking time should be in reflecting on the past in order to learn from it and
process it so that it does not become baggage that weighs you down in the
present. 10 to 15% of your thoughts should be focused on the future, planning
for it to the best of your ability. That leaves 70 to 80% of your time in the
here and now experiencing life to the fullest.
Living in the present moment is the key to good
mental health and low stress levels. Reflecting and planning are important in
healthy doses. Obsessing in either direction will take you out of the present
and create a state of worry or guilt. Getting out of balance in either
direction will cause you problems. We cannot control outcomes so once a plan is
in place, let go and let the future take care of itself. Worry creates a
perceived sense of a catastrophic future, e.g., the stock market will never
recover, or at least not in time for me to retire or send my kids to college,
or I'll never get another job, or I'll lose my house. These catastrophic
thoughts will cause your adrenal glands to secrete more Cortisol than you can
handle and you'll get more and more stressed. Guilt is similar to worry except
that it projects you back into the past to punish yourself for all of your
perceived mistakes and/or wrong doing. It will heighten your stress levels in
the same way as excessive worry and cause an experience of shame about
yourself. This in turn lowers your self-esteem and can cause depression.
Guilt and worry are two of the most useless and
stress producing mental activities you can engage in any time, especially in
these harrowing times. Physical exercise, breathing exercises, meditation,
yoga, and other activities aimed at focusing on the present moment will help
lower your stress levels and will allow you to cope with this temporary but
serious financial downturn. Physical exercise will produce endorphins, the
body's natural pain killing," feel good" hormone. Runners call this the
"runner's high." Practicing the spiritual principles of gratitude, appreciation
and acceptance will help keep you in a positive mental frame of mind and reduce
Attending a sporting event that occupies your full
attention, an art project that fully absorbs you, a concert that moves you or
an entertaining movie can keep you focused in the present. Anything that causes
you to be fully absorbed in the present will lower your stress levels, so
engage. If you've spent your time (10 to 15%) planning for the future you
needn't worry about it and if you've spent your 10 to 15% reflecting on the
past, you are now free and clear to live in the most stress reducing time
zone-the present .
Research shows that support from others is
effective in managing stress. So call upon friends and family when you feel you
need a lift. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by stress, despite all of your
best efforts, consider seeking professional help.
© 2008 Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D.