The Psychological Effects of Economic Downturn

Psychology Today – Michael J. Formica on July 12, 2008 in Enlightened Living – I live and work in Connecticut, and both my life and my work are divided between the social and economic extremes that have always characterized the state. This being the case, I have had the opportunity to develop and excerise a rather unique social perspective.

Part of my week is spent in a very small middle-class seaside community primarily populated by wage earners, shift workers, military personal and blue-collar professionals. The other part of my week is spent in the uber-rich part of the state often ruefully referred to as the “Gold Coast”.

Despite this, there isn’t much variation in the issues that my patients bring to my consulting rooms. In both communities my client load runs the gamut from bored housewives to paranoid schizophrenics with breakthrough dissociation. But something has changed.

And the conversations have changed, as well. No matter what the presenting issue or the on-going work, whether I am talking with individuals or couples, whether I am in the northern office or the southern, it invariably comes back to money and the economy, job loss, work slowdowns, foreclosures and bankruptcies.

The same is true among my friends and acquaintances, whether they be contractors, cops, Special Ops or retired at 40. The primary message is fear.

People are afraid, and some of them will say it out loud. What I am beginning to witness, and why I bring this up, is that the fear the current economic condition is generating is coming out sideways.

I have seen a drastic increase in aberrant social behavior – addictions of all sorts surfacing and re-surfacing, court involved domestic violence, child abuse, anger management issues, affairs, divorces and just general stupidity and acting out – along with the expected spike in depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

I’ve even seen an increase in injuries in my Yoga students and my rowing partners and — forgive me for being airy-fairy — you know that’s just manifest stress.

We cannot control the economy. We cannot control the pressures placed on world markets by the exploding middle classes of India and China. We cannot control the price of oil or the speed with which alternative energy sources become readily available. We are, without doubt, at the sufferance of a juggernaut that we ourselves have created. But all is not lost because we can manage one thing. Us.

We have a choice, just as we always do. We can choose to manage ourselves in the face of what amounts to a global crisis. We can choose to recognize that all things occur in cycles and that, while our current situation may be deeply distressing, it will change. It may not change in exactly the way we expect or would like, but it will change. And change always provides us with an opportunity – it is not an obstacle.

We can also choose not to live in fear and not to let the momentary influences that surround us change who we are and how we behave. Pain – whether emotional or physical – has the effect of causing us to act out of character. This gauntlet that we are all facing is a time for increasing our self-awareness, attending to the things that feed us rather than bleed us, for taking stock and taking responsibility for our own personal universe.

A good friend of mine is a Navy Master Chief with the Seabees. When you ask him what he does, he doesn’t say, “I’m a Master Chief.” or “I build bridges.” or “I provide infrastructure development in war zones.” (He’s about to embark on a 24 month deployment to Iraq) – he says, “My job is to keep my sh*t together in the middle of a sh*t storm so my men can do their job.” Take a lesson — take care of yourself and take care those around you.