Coping with Economic Anxiety
A Psychologist Offers Advice on Staying Positive and Well
Is the economy making you sick — literally?
I don't mean the economy itself, of course, but rather news about the economy, much of which has been negative for as long as we can remember — falling real estate prices, home foreclosures, high unemployment, fears of inflation and higher interest rates, and more.
Does regular exposure to all this negativity make you physically ill? Have you suffered headaches, insomnia, upset stomach or worse? If so, you're not alone. According to a recent CNN survey, 35% of middle-class Americans say they or someone in their household has experienced a physical symptom of stress related to what they've been hearing about the economy.
It's understandable that middle-class Americans feel anxious. Surely those who are truly wealthy avoid these feelings. Right?
Wrong. Even billionaires are stressed about the economy. Insite Security and IBOPE Zogby International asked 300 ultra-high-net-worth individuals their views about the economy and what's happening in the world in general. Some 90% expressed an overall negative view of the global economic climate, and many have adjusted their lifestyles accordingly, such as by ratcheting down lavish or flashy purchases.
If the super-rich are angst-ridden, no wonder the rest of us feel anxious and that some become physically ill!
More important, what's the best way to cope with anxiety about the economy?
I put that question to Dr. Gregory L. Jantz, a psychologist who's the author of Overcoming Anxiety, Worry and Fear: Practical Ways to Find Peace. Dr. Jantz, founder of the Center for Counseling and Health Resources near Seattle, joined me on my radio show. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation:
Ric: Are we making ourselves sick by paying such close attention to negative economic news?
Dr. Jantz: So many people have overidentified with the stock market and really attached their well-being to what the market is doing. We all know there are uncertainties, and anxiety over them puts some people on an emotional roller coaster that can produce physical symptoms.
Ric: How do we know whether we are becoming a victim of this? What are the indications?
Dr. Jantz: Well, there's worry, of course — I might keep dwelling on a fear or concern and keep saying to myself, "What if this or that happens?" If I remain stuck in that mode long enough, I transfer it so that it becomes anxiety. And anxiety simply means that it's now affected me physically. Now I've got sweaty palms, and I feel it in my stomach. Fear of that kind can have a ripple effect: Before you know it, you feel paralyzed, and you can then develop something we call a phobia.
Ric: So this manifests itself in what kinds of symptoms?
Dr. Jantz: Well, maybe the heart rate is up, maybe you're feeling anxious and not able to think clearly or make a decision. Or perhaps you start to make impulsive decisions. You become random in your thinking as it relates, say, to the stock market, so you might not think rationally about what you're doing there. Maybe you're not sleeping. From there, you can even develop some depression.
Ric: So what should people do about it? Is it as simple as turning off the TV and no longer reading the newspaper?
Dr. Jantz: I think it's how much of the negative news we allow in. I think we need to be alert and aware of what's going on, yes. But some people are overalert, hypervigilant. They are attuned to everything to the degree that it begins to control their emotions. So I think there are times when we need to "detox" ourselves from it all by limiting our exposure to negativity. We also need to be sure we're talking to someone in our life, someone we trust and count on to speak the truth. Because once we are ridden with anxiety, we aren't reasoning clearly on our own.
Ric: And you don't realize that you aren't thinking clearly, I presume?
Dr. Jantz: That's true, you don't realize it at that point. And sometimes you cross the next line to developing a phobia, which can bring on panic attacks. This is something we've been working with for a long time. We see people suffering full-fledged panic attacks because their thoughts in some areas are not based on reality.
Ric: I'm a big fan of behavioral finance, neuro-economics and similar subjects. One study I read found that the human brain sometimes doesn't differentiate thought from reality — meaning that if we think about selling an investment at a loss, then physiologically we experience the same effects as actually selling for a loss.
Dr. Jantz: Yes. And that's why our thinking pattern is so important. Because to our body neurons — our brains — what we think can appear to be real.
Ric: So what advice would you give to folks who are fraught with anxiety after hearing or reading about bad economic news? What is your recommendation for them?
Dr. Jantz: I think it's appropriate to be concerned, absolutely. But I'd urge people to see also the flip side of what's happening — positive opportunities. Don't stay focused on the negatives. There are lots of people right now who look for and find opportunities in what's going on, and they take advantage of them. These people frankly are doing quite well.
Ric: That's terrific advice. Thank you.