Chase away recession fears

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Chase away recession fears

July 10, 2009

The classic stress response is an alarm sounding in the body, an adaptive, visceral reaction to a threat. Adrenaline flows. Heart and lung action increases. Blood vessels dilate, the better to supply muscles.

Chronic stress, stress as a response to everyday challenges, is rather less well understood. It's simple to induce chronic stress in lab animals, but science has been at a loss to identify an adaptive origin for this response. Among its other drawbacks, chronic stress compromises the immune response and can trigger or aggravate depression and cardiovascular disease.

“The long-term health consequences appear to outweigh any advantages,” said David Zald, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychology.

We're now 19 months into a major economic recession, and our question is this: for news consumers, can an unending volley of dismal global economic headlines cause chronic stress, with its daily rounds of anxiety, headache, irritability, insomnia? Can unrelieved economic gloom in print and on newscasts pose some sort of health risk, even for those who remain employed?

Our minds aren't so fragile, Zald says.

He brings up people who may already face unrelated stressful circumstances.

“Someone already exposed to stress is more vulnerable, so the economic news could add to that stress and make them feel they have fewer options. If your work isn't going well, it may be comforting to think, 'I could do something else,' or 'I could retire.' If you remove that option, it could have a negative effect.

“If you're happy with your job, I don't see it having an effect,” Zald said.

In standardized assessments, anxiety levels, if not actual chronic stress levels, do correlate with prevailing socio-economic conditions. However, it turns out that the correlation with conditions from one's childhood is much stronger than the correlation with present conditions. Take unemployment rates, for example. Decades of data from assessments taken by college students show that anxiety levels correlate far more closely with unemployment rates from years before, when the person taking the assessment was a child, than with the unemployment rate at the time the assessment is taken. Where these sources of anxiety are concerned, developmental effects apparently trump immediate effects.

Finding the right approach

As adults, what can we do to shore up our well-being, mitigate anxiety and stay clear of chronic stress?

“The data are strong on this, there are things you can do to release stress and promote well-being — exercising, talking with friends, increasing social contact, acknowledging to people that you're feeling stress,” Zald said. He adds that suppressing negative emotions for prolonged periods will usually end up increasing one's stress level.

“Pay some attention to automatic negative thoughts and whether they reflect reality,” he added. “If your initial thought about what happened to your stock portfolio was, 'I'm an idiot,' it could be useful to say, 'I wasn't alone, other people were caught similarly exposed.'”

Colin Armstrong, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist at Vanderbilt Dayani Center, suggests taking a brisk daily walk, spending time with family and friends, meditation, yoga, prayer, quiet reflection, keeping a diary devoted to things you're grateful for, or more active solutions such as setting a budget and putting personal finances in order.

“There is no one approach to stress management that's right for everyone, and the trick is to find the approach that's right for you,” Armstrong said.

Zald and Armstrong agree that cognitive techniques, such as those learned through rational emotive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, are useful for managing chronic stress.

“I do think there's a place for wisdom passed along from one generation to the next: 'don't make mountains out of molehills,' 'don't borrow trouble' and 'don't forget to count your blessings,'” Armstrong said.

For help with chronic-stress reduction, consider stress management workshops, yoga and Tai Chi classes at the Dayani Center (322-4751) or at the Center for Integrative Health (343-1554); free yoga and tai chi sessions through HealthPlus (343-8943); or the free services of licensed counselors at Vanderbilt's Work/Life Connections Employee Assistance Program (936-1327).

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