Economic stress is the unpleasant reality for many in the United States and in many other countries today. There is plenty of anxiety to go around for everybody. The unemployed worry about not being able to find another job; the employed fear losing their job; business owners lament stagnating or falling sales; entrepreneurs are holding back investments for fear of insufficient returns; politicians squabble and scramble in search of solutions while worrying about the economy’s effect on their reelection prospects.
A Bad Situation Made Worse by Diminishing Options
In each of these situations, the effects of persistent stress are taking their usual and heavy toll on sleep, eating, temper, morale, relationships and health. Depending on factors that may date back to childhood or be related to one’s personality traits, lifestyle choices or physical condition, some individuals are better able to cope with stress than others. In this situation, the use and abuse of alcohol, nicotine, drugs, sex, video games, and other less than desirable “remedies” is on the rise. Some of the manifestations of stress that have a negative impact on others, such as domestic violence, interpersonal conflict, anger and bullying are also more prevalent.
One aspect of economic distress that bears closer analysis is decision-making. In times of diminishing resources—due to job or investment loss, or lack of opportunities—the range of available choices tends to diminish drastically. The choice of where to go on vacation is narrowed to whether to go at all; the option of when and where to invest one’s assets is shifted to how to best preserve their value; the freedom to choose how to spend one’s money is curtailed to spending only on necessities; the choices of how best to further one’s career is simplified down to the need to hold on to the job. There is a domino effect that compounds the impact of these decisions (or non-decisions as the case may be) because, for example, when we choose not to spend we narrow the choices available to business owners by diminishing their income. If the statistics are to be believed, almost two-thirds of the US economy depends on consumer spending for most of its growth potential. When we stop spending because we are stressed about our income (or lack thereof), we may inadvertently help propagate the stress well beyond our immediate confines and onto the whole of the national economy.
What We Can Do to Reduce Economic Stress
While the choices available to us today cannot include a continuation of the spending patterns of the boom years, there is an argument to be made in favor of maintaining a level of spending that reflects a reasonable balance between living beyond our means and living on pork and beans. Here are a few suggestions on how to deal with economic stress in a balanced and reasonable way.
- Review our family or business budget, particularly the changes in income from work or investments, in view of re-balancing cash flow and expenses. Knowing the exact extent of our (diminished) income can be a stressor in itself, but choosing to ignore reality is rarely a good stress management strategy.
- Given our current income level, reduce certain expenses and postpone or eliminate certain others. Depriving ourselves, our families or employees of the pleasure of acquiring new things, eating out, getting a new car or new equipment is not nearly as much fun as worry-free spending. However, a mismatch between income and outflow is sure to produce much more stress once the gap reaches a breaking point.
- Replace expensive “stress reducers” such as vacations, fancy food and drinks, designer drugs, luxury gym and club memberships, with other more appropriate and less costly relaxers. The meaning attached to expensive activities may have more to do with the pain of giving them up than their actual stress-reducing benefits. Are they really helping us relax, or are they more of a boost to our self-esteem?
- Refrain from the tendency to isolate or withdraw socially. In times of distress, the best and more effective source of support is found in our existing or newly formed network of friends and relatives. Sharing one’s concerns, worries and real problems with others is good medicine. It helps as a way to unburden and to realize that our problems aren’t uniquely or entirely our own.
- Start something new. If the usual avenues of income have dried up or have been greatly diminished, the stress of the situation can provide the incentive to look for new and more creative ways to use our skills and natural talents. If there is a project that we’ve always wanted to pursue but couldn’t because we were working full-time; or if the idea for something completely new has come to mind, being unemployed may provide just the necessary time needed to look into it more in depth and see if it can be turned into something worthwhile.
- Accept the stress that comes with a legitimate and serious stressor. It would be unrealistic to expect that unemployment or severely reduced income and assets would provoke a mild reaction in us. It is more reasonable to expect a strong and prolonged reaction that may have physical and psychological manifestations. The technique of “budgeting” for a generous amount of stress, i.e. predicting and expecting its effects, and accepting that time will be needed to work through it, offers the benefit of choosing to be stressed, for a time, rather than denying its existence and being ambushed by it.
- Express and externalize distress. The expression of emotion is a powerful and natural way to acknowledge and fully experience life—the good, the bad and the ugly of it. Depending on cultural norms, emotional expression may be more or less overt but the important thing here is to express rather than repress. Moreover, it helps to externalize the problem so that the problem is the problem, not us. This is particularly important in terms of the meaning we may attach to a job loss or to diminished income, for example as a statement about who we are. The fact is that the economic situation is a much larger and complex problem than any one individual, and is therefore an external uncontrollable circumstance that says very little about us as individuals.
- Find some humor somewhere, even if you have to dig it out of the ground with a shovel. Humor is a proven stress reliever that can provide cognitive and emotional benefits, by inducing a distraction and refocusing attention and by providing perspective on the situation. This is the time to start watching comedies, catching the latest YouTube funny video, and enjoy some laughter with friends and neighbors. Not easy to self-generate if our prevailing mood is one of despair: in this case we may need to dig up something funny out of what is objectively a serious situation. The payoff will be there.