Stress and the Economy

Many psychiatric disorders have to do with external factors causing emotional upheaval and distress. There’s Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is caused by lack of exposure to sunlight. There’s Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is caused by experiencing an event that is dangerous and traumatic, and now I believe there may be a new epidemic affecting the mental health and wellbeing of many — Market Affective Disorder (MAD), which is caused by stress in response to the global economic crisis that is impacting our savings and sense of security. While MAD isn’t an actual disorder, we, as a nation, are certainly mad about how things are going.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2007 survey on stress in America, work and money are the two greatest factors of stress for approximately 75 percent of Americans.Research has also shown increases in drinking, eating, gambling and smoking in response to stress.One survey even found a decrease in visits to the doctor in this current recession.In my experience, I would argue that the current financial downturn and continued uncertainty has overtaxed us all emotionally as a nation.

Most places I go these days I either overhear someone talking about the economy or I am invited to offer up my opinions on the topic.I recently returned from a vacation with my family to the Caribbean where I had the wonderful opportunity to meet people from all over the world.I was surprised at how frequently concerns involving the economy and personal savings came up in conversations with individuals I had just met — individuals who were supposed to be relaxing on vacation.One can barely order a cup of coffee anymore without hearing about how much someone’s 401(k) is down or where the market’s bottom is.Even amongst my colleagues in the office, the topic du jour is the economy — I noticed the other day that Yahoo Finance and E*TRADE are the two most visited sites on our computer.

As a psychologist, I have also seen first-hand a direct correlation between the economy’s downturn over the past several months and my clients discussing their own financial hardships more within our meetings. For many of my clients, the economy has led to increased symptoms of anxiety, stress, depression, as well as marital and parenting conflicts around spending. Some of my clients are also having trouble sleeping and a few have complained of increases in stress induced stomach pain and headaches.

The one thing we can be sure of is that our economic problems as a nation will not be solved entirely any time soon. What you then do on an individual level is essential. I’ve listed a few pointers below to address your MAD:

– Those suffering from MAD are just that…mad. The old adage that misery loves company, simply does not apply here. In my opinion, identifying with others to complain to in hopes of feeling supported will only lead to more upset. These days, talking about the stock market or the economy in general will likely involve some degree of worrying, complaining and frustration. Thus, you should avoid extended conversations having to do with the economy or market. They say that politics and religion are topics to be avoided at social gatherings — I would now add the market to that list.

– Stop looking at your investment portfolio daily since it will only upset you further. I recommend scheduling a short time (30 minutes a week at most) on the weekend to review your portfolio to make any adjustments if needed. This way your work week is freed up for you to focus your energies on what matters most – your work, your relationships and yourself.

– Stop rationalizing in your head or with others. Avoid any dialogue that includes statements like “it’s gotta turn around soon” or “this has to be the bottom, right?” Again, this sort of thought pattern or conversation will only lead to more worrying, complaining and frustration, and eventually you getting madder. Instead, come up with a mantra or a self-statement of personal safety that fits you well, such as, “I am safe” or “I have what I need today.”

– Reduce the amount of time you spend looking at or listening to the media discussing the economy. Checking in briefly with the media at the start of the day and at the end of the day is a better approach then watching CNBC all evening. You will be just as informed without running the risk of worrying or obsessing with excessive exposure to the current situation.

– Living a balanced life is always a good thing, especially in these trying times. Avoid drinking to excess, watch your diet and make sure to get enough sleep and exercise.

– Engage your focus in other areas beyond your financial concerns. For instance, start a hobby or organize your home. Consider taking an evening class in an area of interest or to simply challenge yourself professionally. Many companies offer to pay a percentage for schooling, especially if the course work relates to your job. Additional activities will serve as a distraction and possibly give you a greater sense of control and mastery over the areas you can have some control over.

I seriously hope MAD does not become an actual disorder, inasmuch as we have enough disorders already. While the challenges we face financially today as a nation are stressful, it’s important to remember that America has faced recessions before, and we’ve gotten through them. This is the perfect time of year for personal reflection and perspective taking, as we all prepare for a better tomorrow in 2009.

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D.

Clinical Psychologist