By Amanda Gardner
With headlines using words like "plummet" and "dive" to describe steep stock market declines this week, experts say many Americans' emotions are also in a downward spiral.
Barely four years after the first financial meltdown, people are now grappling with fears of a "double-dip" recession, looming federal and state budget cuts and shock at the first-ever downgrading (by agency Standard & Poor's) of their country's credit rating. On Monday, Wall Street suffered its steepest drop since 2008, and the sell-offs continued on stock exchanges worldwide.
For Americans worried about their financial future, the past few days may have taken a big psychological toll.
"This is re-invoking fear and uncertainty," said Dr. Carl Greiner, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. "Many people were hoping that the economy was getting back on track so they could start saving for retirement or their children's education or go back to work. Those things are in suspension right now."
But it's not just anxiety about the state of the economy and the state of one's personal savings or lack thereof. There's also plenty of anger out there, too, aimed mainly at lawmakers.
"We're all anxious. We're all upset and we're angry because we think our legislators have put us in this position," said Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City.
"We're watching a failure of leadership," added Alan Manevitz, a family psychiatrist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "It's like watching your parents fighting and not being able to come up with any unified leadership. It's up to you to figure out what's happening and that creates great fear inside of us. . . We're showing instability, and people want to see stability."
It's easy to attribute the upset to "recession fatigue," but many experts really feel it's more than that. Recession fatigue is what people had been feeling. The recent furor on Capitol Hill and Wall Street turned it up a notch, they noted.
"If recession fatigue were a faucet, that would be the drip, drip, drip of things are moving very slowly," Greiner said. "This is more like the washer is broken, faucet is going and we don't know when it's going to turn off. . . This is much more concerning and starts bringing up the question of 'Where's the bottom?'"
The media's fixation with every twist and turn in the economy isn't helping.
"The financial media have made finance into a spectator sport. It's minute-by-minute like they're announcing a fast-paced basketball game," said Manevitz. "They create this fear that creates the bottom."
But the experts also agreed that there are things Americans can do to regain some sense of control and emotional equilibrium.
One would be to cut back on time spent tracking financial news. "I go straight to the sports section," Hilfer said. "We need to focus on what we're able to do and what we're able to control."
And Greiner advised against doing anything rash, financially or otherwise. "If you've got a financial advisor or someone in the family who's good with money, talk to them [first] rather than do something suddenly," he said.
People can also be grateful for what they do still have, Manevitz pointed out.
"If you're working, be grateful that you have a job. Don't be looking at what you don't have. Take action, whatever that may be. Start to spend a little less and focus on the other valuable things in your life, your family and your health," he said.
And remember that there is always room for optimism.
"We do bounce back," added Hilfer. "What would be useful would be to recognize that when things like this happen, things are designed to stabilize again. . . What people will hopefully be able to do is look at history and get some sense of hopefulness about the future. Whether that's false hopefulness it's very hard to tell, but we do seem to have the capacity to bounce back."
There's more on coping with stress at the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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