By Toby H. Brener
InteliHealth Staff Writer
Maybe you've seen the new stock market terms making the e-mail rounds and on some Internet sites intended as comic relief:
- CEO – Chief embezzlement officer
- Standard & Poor – Your life in a nutshell
- Financial planner – A guy whose phone has been disconnected
- Cash flow – The movement your money makes as it disappears down the toilet
Whether these make you laugh or cry, scary headlines, dwindling retirement funds, job insecurity and the inability to pay the bills are stressing people to the max.
How Stressed Are You?
When you feel the demands on you are greater than the resources you have to cope with them, you feel stressed.
One way to understand the significance of financial stress is to put it in context. Mental health experts often use the Holmes-Rahe stress scale, which ranks common life events according to how stressful they are. Among the top 20 most stressful events are:
- Foreclosure on a loan or mortage (No. 6)
- Being fired, laid off or unemployed (No. 13)
- Financial problems (No. 14)
- Loss of or major reduction in health insurance/benefits (No. 19)
Stress Affects Health
Stress is your body's natural reaction to any kind of demand that disrupts life as usual, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
Occasional stress can temporarily speed up your heart rate and might raise your blood pressure. But as long as you get your stress under control, there's no damage. It's long-term or chronic stress, however, that doctors worry about. Common symptoms include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Back or neck pain from muscle tension
- Indigestion – constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome
- Irritability and feeling down
- Lack of energy
- Lack of concentration
- Eating too much or not at all
- Weight gain or loss
Also, getting pregnant may be more difficult.
In addition, chronic stress can make health problems you already have worse:
- More intense symptoms related to depression or anxiety
- Increased pain from arthritis
- Worsening asthma symptoms
- Difficulty keeping blood pressure in the normal range
- Higher risk of complications in people with heart disease
- Poor blood-sugar control in people who have diabetes
Strength in Numbers
You have plenty of company if you're feeling stressed by the recent economic upheaval. The APA's 2008 Stress in America survey –released this month — found that 8 out of 10 Americans say that the economy is a significant cause of stress.
- More people report fatigue (53% compared with 51% in 2007), feelings of irritability or anger (60% compared with 50% in 2007) and lying awake at night (52% compared with 48% in 2007) as a result of stress. Other reported symptoms included lack of interest or motivation, feeling depressed or sad, headaches and muscular tension.
- Women were more likely than men to report physical symptoms of stress like fatigue (57% compared with 49% for men), irritability (65% compared with 55%), headaches (56% compared with 36%) and feeling depressed or sad (56% compared with 39%).
- Almost half of Americans (48%) reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods to manage stress, while one in four (39%) skipped a meal in the last month because of stress.
- Almost one-fifth of Americans (18%) reported drinking alcohol to manage their stress, and 16% reported smoking.
Staying Well During Difficult Times
It's challenging to stay calm and positive when your financial security feels threatened, you don't feel in control, fear of the unknown is gripping you, and you've lost trust in financial institutions. But here are some tips for successful coping and for taking care of your health.
- Don't ignore signs of physical or emotional stress. You may be tempted to brush off your low mood, irritability, upset stomach or headaches that are getting worse. Maybe you and your spouse are arguing more, or you’re exhausted from working two jobs. Stress that goes unchecked can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Call your doctor or speak to a mental health professional to minimize the impact on your health.
- Don't overload yourself with information. It's OK to keep up with the news, but preoccupation with every up and down of the stock market is counterproductive. You risk getting swept up in the hype, overreacting or making rash decisions.
- Take actions where you can to reduce worry and anxiety, but stop worrying about what you can’t control, suggests the APA. Find places to cut costs in your family budget, take steps toward getting out of debt, or talk to a credit counselor or financial planner.
- Turn the crisis into an occasion for personal renewal. People who can find some value or benefit during a stressful period tend to cope more successfully, according to experts. Resilient people turn difficult times into an opportunity for personal growth, re-ordering priorities, focusing on relationships, re-allocating time, and transforming their lives in some positive way.
- Change how you respond. To a large extent, it's our perceptions of events that cause us stress and undermine our mood, behavior and health. An approach called "cognitive restructuring" or "reframing" helps a person replace negative and distorted thinking with more positive and realistic thoughts. So, for example, if you believe that your financial crisis is your personal failure, realize that many other people are in the same situation. Or ask yourself these questions reduce stress to a more manageable size:
- What is the worst that can happen?
- Is it likely that the worst outcome will occur? If so, how likely is it?
- How would such an outcome change your life?
- Is there anything else you can do to influence the result, or have you done all that is possible?
- Beware of emotional ambushes. The key to avoiding emotional ambushes, according to Julie Silver, MD assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, is to pay attention to how information affects your mood. If you find yourself feeling worried and anxious every time you listen to the financial news, ask yourself if the information you just heard or read directly affects you. If not, then don't take it on as a personal concern. Push it out of your mind so it doesn't drain you.
- Resist the temptation to isolate or hide your fears. Social isolation increases stress. Stay connected to family and friends. The current economic crisis isn't going to get fixed any time soon. Most of us will live with financial stress for a while. So talk about your worries with a person you trust. Someone who can look at your situation from the outside with emotional distance, can give you a better perspective, support and even practical advice.
- Identify your financial pain points. Hold a family meeting to discuss how you can cut costs and manage the money better. Make a plan and review in a month. Putting things down on paper and committing to a plan can reduce stress, according to the APA. With the help of friends and trusted advisors, make a plan for dealing with your financial situation, then stick with it.
- Make yourself more stress-resilient. Healthy habits are often the first to go when people are under stress. According to Suzanne Kovan, M.D. internal medicine specialist at Harvard Medical School, trying to calm yourself down by overeating, smoking, or drinking too much alcohol can make you even more vulnerable to the physical damage caused by prolonged stress. A good meal or a glass of wine can be an important simple pleasure if enjoyed in moderation. (Just be aware of behavior that may take you down a more self-destructive path.) Exercise, relaxation practices such as yoga and meditation, healthy diet, adequate sleep, and nurturing social relationships all make our fight-or-flight stress system less "trigger happy."
- Deal with today's problems today. Do only what you can do on any given day and try not to worry about tomorrow until tomorrow.
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