Maybe it hits you whenever, say, you hear rumblings in the office that pink slips are coming. Suddenly there's that pang in your heart, the thump-thump that are your pulse and your blood pressure rising, and then, out pop the pearls of sweat. This is the emotional underside of the recession.
Nearly every day feels as though you're climbing aboard some whoopsy-doopsy roller coaster. The news hits hard—reports of job cuts, foreclosures, bankruptcies. All of a sudden, it's not so far away, this very bad news. Geez, it's just down the block. Or, worse, there at your very own kitchen table.
Maybe, like David Kovacs, a Chicago scriptwriter with one kid in college and one about to take off, you've watched your work slow to a trickle and you, like he, "just wait for the other shoe to drop."
Or maybe, like Karen Rodriguez, the worst has come, and now you're feeling somewhat adrift without the job title that has so long defined you. A biochemist with three kids under 8, Rodriguez never dreamed she'd lose her top-level job, but she did last July.
There has been talk up, down and sideways about how to cut your budget and how to cobble together a résumé, but what about the emotional underpinning to all of these tough times?
What do we need in our emotional repertoire to not only survive but perhaps even triumph? Could it be, some day down the road, we'll look back and think of this as the long, hard test that turned our whole life around?
The good news: You can, if you navigate with precision and pluck, triumph quite clearly. It's not magic, and it won't happen overnight, but what you may need most is a prescription that sounds not unlike what your grandma might have told you over and over again. It's plain common sense. Take good care of yourself. Surround yourself with good friends. Find your purpose in life.
More good news: Science, specifically advances in neuro-imaging—that is, the scanners that peer deep in our heads—has documented that the human brain is the key organ for adapting to stress. And, through a series of snapshots of parts of the brain under stress, neuroscientists now know what works and what doesn't. And how we can enlist the brain to work for—not against—us.
It's one of the hot topics in psychiatry and preventive mental health, and it's called resilience.
Best news of all: We have the power to boost it, even when the stress in our lives goes on unabated.
"It's so simple and so basic. But there's real biology in all this. The brain is an adaptable organ; we refer to it as 'adaptive plasticity,' and it's reversible," says Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York City, who is considered "the king of resiliency" for his pioneering work in how the brain adapts to and bounces back from stress.
"They used to say, 'It's all in your head,' in a dismissive way," says McEwen, whose niche is neuroendocrinology, the study of hormones and the brain. "Well, in fact, it is [in your head] in a very real scientific way. The imaging does show exactly what happens in our brains."
Of course none of this will make the bills and the job pressures and the other losses go away. But the one thing you can control is your reaction to it all. Learn to manage those reactions—negative and positive—and the resulting resiliency can carry you through. Whereas anxiety and depression, in moderate doses, are part of the normal response to stress, they're programmed to fade as the stresses are lifted. That's how the brain bounces back.
If the anxiety and depression don't ebb, then treatment—with medications and psychotherapy—is called for. McEwen has found that the changes those emotions create in the brain can't go on endlessly without harming the brain and the body, especially the cardiovascular and immune systems. He gives us hard scientific data that show common-sense prescriptions—sleep, diet, exercise, among them—go a long way toward giving the brain a chance to rebound.
While McEwen alone convinced us we could ride this out, we didn't stop there in exploring smart ways to do so. We also talked to a psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist, a licensed clinical social worker and a rabbi trained in psychotherapy who has been counseling clients for 40 years.
The clinicians all report surges in emotional turbulence due to the recession.
"Anxiety started increasing more and more in late summer and early fall, but now it's reached a fever pitch," said Lynne Knobloch- Fedders, a clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, whose research focuses on how anxiety and depression affect couples' relationships.
"People already suffering from anxiety or depression find this latest layer—the economic stressors—an additional burden. Or, it's brought anxiety and depression to the fore in cases where it had been just under the surface. Other families, ones who'd not been afflicted, look around and see there's no certainty. They see neighbors and friends losing their jobs, or their homes, and they're all stressed."
Truth is, you were born to survive stress. There is a whole range of emotions that, exercised smartly, can help you survive. Five key psychodynamics—plus an all-purpose booster—come into play here.
RECESSION SURVIVAL GUIDE
Your emotional stimulus plan
If economic worries leave you anxious or depressed, you have the power to build a strong reserve of coping skills.
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
Having technical problems? Check here for guidance.