While the market plunges, free-floating anxiety is rising. How to cope with all the excess worry? Nancy Palmer reports on a few soothing ideas.
By Nancy Palmer
Illustration: Jorge Columbo
Money anxiety disorder: That's what you might call the latest American epidemic (the acronym, conveniently, would be MAD). According to a survey in October by the American Psychological Association, 80 percent of us find the recent financial crisis a significant cause of stress—up from 66 percent last April—and women are bearing the brunt of the worry, reporting greater concern over job stability and health problems affecting their families, for example, than men are. "Money is a safety net, as in, 'I may not be able to count on people, but I can count on my cash,'" says the APA's public education coordinator for Pennsylvania, David Palmiter, PhD. "Now the thinking's gone to: 'There's nothing between me and the abyss.'"
You can find plenty of advice from financial experts on how to cope. But what about the pervasive sense of panic, which can take a serious toll on health, putting you at higher risk for a host of ailments from high blood pressure to heart disease. Science has shown that exercise and meditation are two of the most effective ways to reduce stress—but you probably already know that, and likely feel too pressured to try either. So we asked a few experts for other strategies you might not have considered.
Sometimes a funk can equal more than the sum of its parts. For instance, you wake up to discover there's no milk for your coffee, the highway is backed up so you're late for work, and you're sinking into another bad—and worsening—day.
You don't have to go there. It's not the events themselves but the way the mind reacts to them that can cause a minor annoyance to snowball into an all-encompassing black mood—good news because, while you can't control traffic or someone hogging the milk, you can change how you respond when things go wrong.
The facts, please: Downward spirals are often provoked by jumping to the worst-case conclusion. You make a beeline from a boss's critical e-mail right to "I'm going to be fired." Or you take a friend's failure to call as a sure sign she doesn't like you anymore. But the boss's complaint is probably just business as usual; the friend is simply distracted by a problem in her own life that has nothing to do with you. So before taking a flight of bad fancy, reread the boss's e-mail more carefully (you may be surprised to find positive comments you hadn't noticed before), and review all possible explanations. Who knows, maybe she was just stressed out by her boss.
Let it be: Humans are highly evolved problem solvers. No sooner do we experience a negative emotion than we feel compelled to fix it. Usually that urge goes with the assumption that there's something wrong with us for feeling blue, which only compounds the depression.
Another problem is that by trying to think our way out of sadness, we paradoxically fuel it. "The more you feed these downward cycles with attention, the more you allow them to proliferate," says The Mindful Way Through Depression co-author Zindel Segal, PhD. "The negative ideas and experiences will just multiply, spinning from one thing to two things to four things to eight things." Instead, he suggests accepting your sadness as a natural state, experiencing it in the moment, and allowing it to pass. This doesn't mean letting yourself slide passively into a deeper slump but, rather, engaging with your feelings in a mindful way. The following meditation exercise can help you do this.
Sweaty palms, jagged nerves, choking insecurity: LEVEL ORANGE. Heart pounding out of your chest: LEVEL RED.
Most of us know what it is to feel like a walking Homeland Security alert system. In fact, an estimated 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, and millions more face the everyday panic that comes with job interviews, public speaking, entering a party, and other stressful situations. What's surprising, especially to the highly strung, is that we don't have to live with it.
Allow Yourself to Be Nervous
Accept that you're having an anxiety moment. Trying to squelch or deny it will only make it worse—and just focus on what's in front of you, says David Barlow, PhD, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. If you're at an interview, meeting, or party, listen intently to what the other person is saying. Make eye contact. When it's your turn to speak, be conscious of every word you say.
If you're at your desk, respond to overdue e-mails or tackle the pile in your in-box. Whatever you're doing, take a few deep breaths to help let the anxious thoughts and feelings float on by.
Stop Trying to Be Perfect
"Almost by definition, if you're anxious, you're being overly perfectionistic in the goals you're setting for yourself," Barlow says. "You see all the ways you won't meet them, the thought of failure makes you anxious, and anxiety makes you think the worst."
Look at the hard evidence from past experiences. Honestly, have you ever been laughed out of a job interview or a work presentation for not getting every word just so? "Most of the time, people will see that things went all right, even if they thought they could have done better," says Barlow. "Tell yourself, 'It's extremely unlikely that anything will ever go as badly as I think.'"
Stop Being So Nice
When you find yourself on edge for no obvious reason, it's your body's way of signaling there's a problem you're avoiding, says David Burns, MD, author of When Panic Attacks: The New Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life. Most anxiety-prone people try so hard to be agreeable, he says, that when confronted with an upsetting situation (being denied a promotion though they know they deserve one, for example), they'll sweep their feelings under the rug rather than stand up for themselves.
Look back over the last week or so, he suggests, to see if something like this happened, then take steps to express your thoughts and resolve the situation.
Take a Walk on the Mindful Side "Whether a threat is from a scary thought or an actual danger, your body tenses up," says Jeffrey Brantley, MD, director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke Integrative Medicine and author of Calming Your Anxious Mind.
A walking meditation sends an instant message that it's okay to relax. To begin, turn your attention to your right foot. Slowly start to walk, noting every sensation as your foot lifts up, swings forward, and settles to the floor. Do the same with your left foot, observing and allowing whatever thoughts and feelings arise. Keep moving until you feel the sense of urgency ebb. "Walking like this helps restore balance so you can gain some insight into what's bothering you," says Brantley.
Face Your Fear
If there's a specific activity like public speaking that always makes you break into a cold sweat, try a technique used by cognitive-behavioral therapists: First do something similar but less frightening (making a toast each night at dinner), then gradually move your way through more nerve-racking occasions (giving a toast at a wedding, guest-teaching a class).
"Your fear diminishes with each step," says Martin Antony, PhD, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Ontario, so by the time you get to the original alarming activity, it will feel less overwhelming. It helps to progress quickly through the list and practice as frequently as possible, he adds: Research shows that this is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety.
The next time someone dreams up a new superhero, she should be wielding a bedpan. And Kleenex. And playing cards and travel Scrabble. As any of the more than 50 million Americans caring for an elderly, disabled, or chronically ill loved one knows, the task requires superhuman strength and patience—and loads of compassion. Given the constant demands on your time and energy—for months or years on end—as well as the stress and frustration involved, having large reserves of empathy is crucial. [See: Caring for Your Parents: How to Reclaim the Good Old Times]
Yet as strange as it sounds, all that empathy can backfire, flooding you with the other person's pain, and leaving you exhausted, angry, even unable to care anymore. No one likes to talk about these feelings; they seem selfish, shameful, indecent. They take a toll, however—on both you and the patient. And they're a growing concern among physicians, who have a name for what's happening: compassion fatigue.
"About 6 to 8 percent of physicians and nurses suffer compassion fatigue," says Michael Kearney, MD, the lead author of a report on the subject published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Unlike burnout, which is caused by everyday work stresses (dealing with insurance companies, making treatment choices), compassion fatigue results from taking on the emotional burden of a patient's agony. In a way, it's similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, except that the stress is a reaction to the trauma of another. As with PTSD, symptoms include irritability, disturbed sleep, outbursts of anger, intrusive thoughts, and a desire to avoid anything having to do with the patient's struggle.
Deborah Garner, a social worker at Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro in North Carolina, has suffered from the condition. "There was one patient I particularly bonded with," she says. "After somehow managing to fulfill this woman's last request—getting her three very large dogs to the hospice—I was drained. I felt like if someone asked me to do one more task that day, make one more phone call or see one more dying patient, I would scream. I had no energy left." Garner drove home in a daze and sat on the couch with her 8-year-old daughter—no TV, just talking. "It took three or four weeks to feel the joy—the calling—of my job again," she says. The biggest help: sharing her feelings with her coworkers.
Philip Muskin, MD, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, has also gone through compassion fatigue. In the course of treating a young man who became more and more depressed, Muskin says, "Nothing I did worked. Here was a really talented person with tremendous potential. His suffering became my suffering." After trying every medication and therapy he knew of, Muskin felt angry and demoralized, and went to see a therapist himself. "He told me, 'People send you these patients all the time. It isn't that you don't know enough; maybe no one does. Maybe the only way to help this person is to just try to be with him and understand his pain."
For the millions of ordinary people who become caregivers, Muskin says the most important way to prevent compassion fatigue is simply to recognize that it can occur. "It means saying to others, 'This is really getting to me, not because I'm weak or inept, but because it's a terrible situation.'" Caring for yourself may seem like a low priority while trying to care for another—but it's essential for the patient. "Knowing that someone is crying for you and feeling your pain," says Muskin, "really is therapeutic."
For the third time now, the hardware store clerk has brought you the wrong lightbulb, maybe because she still hasn't gotten off her @#*! cell phone. Bad service isn't a crime, but it sure can make you want to commit one, as can any number of daily irritants (being cut off on the highway, just missing the train). Americans report losing their temper on average three to four times a week, according to Raymond W. Novaco, PhD, the University of California, Irvine, psychology and social behavior professor who coined the term "anger management" in 1975. To cool down fast:
1. Call it: The minute you feel your temperature rise, tell yourself, "I'm bothered, and that may blur my judgment," Novaco suggests.
2. Don't wait to inhale: Each of us has a unique anger threshold based on chemicals like serotonin, says Emil Coccaro, MD, chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, where he runs an aggression research lab. Depending on the kind of day you're having, your arousal varies, and when it's high, it's easier to explode. Regular exercise and relaxation practices can help you lower your arousal level and, in turn, stay below your breaking point so you're more immune to rude remarks and other daily aggravations. If you do feel yourself getting worked up, just start breathing deeply to calm down: Imagine the breath going in and out through your heart while thinking about something in your life with appreciation, suggests Deborah Rozman, PhD, a California psychologist and co-author of Transforming Stress: The HeartMath Solution for Relieving Worry, Fatigue, and Tension, who has successfully tested this approach in clinical trials. After just five cycles, your system should be back to a more emotionally balanced, even keel.
3. Note to self: "I'm great." At the root of anger is self-doubt—a salesperson's incompetence doesn't throw you into a rage unless you're feeling helpless, harried, overextended, or otherwise victimized—says Steven Stosny, PhD, a Maryland anger specialist who has treated more than 6,000 people and written You Don't Have to Take It Anymore. So as soon as you start bristling, turn your mind to whatever or whoever makes you feel good about yourself—an achievement, future goals, a pet—as long as it has nothing to do with the issue at hand. The quick shift in focus can snap you out of a temper flare.
4. Think of something funny: If you're already in a full-throttle rage, you can startle yourself out of it with humor, says Coccaro. One old trick is to imagine the person who's enraging you standing there buck naked—maybe they even slip on a banana peel or get a pie thrown in their face. Another standby is to remember your favorite comedic moment (I Love Lucy in the candy factory? Jerry Seinfeld yada-yada-yada-ing? Chris Rock's last concert? Any 2-year-old eating a cupcake?).
5. Clear your mind: At high levels of arousal, thinking gets fuzzy (attention narrows, and we're operating from our primitive fight-or-flight instinct). To cut through the fog, have questions ready to ask yourself, Stosny suggests: If there's an aggressor, what are at least two reasons this person might be acting out? In a traffic jam, acknowledge the frustration of the situation with a quick mental note—"So here we are"—and then jump to "How am I going to get on with it?"
From the October 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Geek Dad or Luddite Dad: 5 Ways the Web Can Help You Celebrate Father's Day
Just in time to celebrate dad, technology expert Alexandra Samuel shares five ways to use the Web to create the perfect gift for any dad this Father's Day.
By Alexandra Samuel
Can you keep a secret? Then I'll tell you what my kids are doing for their geek dad this Father's Day.
He's an avid digital photographer who shoots hundreds of pictures every month, filling up the hard drive on our home computer. But he enjoys shooting a lot more than organizing, so it's hard for him to find his favorite images when he wants to show off the kids to his friends or family.
So the kids and I have done the work for him. We've spent the past few weeks reviewing thousands of pictures and selecting the ones the kids like the best. And since the kids are doing the choosing, it's not about composition or which pictures look cutest. It's about collecting the pictures that show everything they love about their dad: the pictures of mornings spent making pancakes together, weekend expeditions to the park and the first airplane trip he took them on.
On Father's Day, we'll load the kid-created album onto his iPhone and iPad, putting the pictures on the devices he always has with them. For my geeky husband, a gift that combines gadgets with kid creativity is a match made in heaven.
My own dad was another story. Until just a couple of years ago, his primary computer had a black-and-white monitor and a dial-up modem—hardly the ideal environment for photo sharing. To give him a collection of photos, I got a digital picture frame and preloaded it with a year's worth of images. He loved seeing a rotating display of his grandchildren, especially since he could see them without turning on his ancient computer.
Whether the dad in your life is a geek or a Luddite, technology can help you celebrate this Father's Day—or any day when you want to let Dad know how much he means to you.
Gift Giving For geek dad you can’t go wrong with a gadget, especially one that reminds him of his kids. One that might be new to even a hardened gadget freak is the Jabra Halo is a Bluetooth headset for listening to music or taking calls, which I was lucky enough to receive complimentary from Jabro after my original one broke (I guess they know I am a big fan!). Pair it with a new playlist of the favorite songs that dad has passed along to his kids: in our house that includes U2’s <i>Pride</i> and Simon & Garfunkel’s <i>Feeling Groovy</i>.
A Luddite dad will be thrilled with a gift that says, "I love you enough to unplug." Ask your kids to put down their Game Boys and cell phones long enough to make Dad a personal gift. You can find terrific Father's Day craft projects online. For the younger set, try Kaboose.com; teens can check out Instructables.com for nifty DIY projects like bookends made from old vinyl records.
Bonding Time A geek dad will enjoy spending quality time with the kids—if quality time involves a pair of game controllers. Red Dead Redemption is a hot new PlayStation and Xbox game your teens can play with Dad; younger kids can enjoy playing Little Big Planet.
And there's no kinder way to show a Luddite dad your love than with a little tech support. Young kids can use a program like KidPix or the free Tux Paint to make Dad a personalized desktop picture. Older kids can help Dad finally set up his Facebook or Twitter account or teach him how to respond to their text messages. Just think how happy Dad will be when he gets a text that says "HAVING FUN B HOME L8ER" and can respond with his own text saying "ROTFL C U IN 15 MINS."