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 bailout.

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 stress.

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 area's families.

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 depressed.

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 stress.

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.

Contact us