Oct. 9, 2008 -- Plunging markets. Shaky mortgages. Pricey bailouts. The financial crisis is taking a toll on your wallet, but your health could also be on the line.
Chronic stress can take a toll on your body; it's linked to everything from depression to heart disease. And the global economic tailspin has been a chronic stressor for weeks, with no end in sight.
But there's no need for your health to slide into its own recession. The following nine tips may help -- and they won't cost you $700 billion.
1. You're obsessed with the markets.
Maybe you need to unplug a bit, suggests Kenneth Ruge, PsyD, a psychotherapist, marriage counselor, and minister in New York who's seeing economic stress take its toll on his clients, who include Wall Street workers and their spouses.
"I'm suggesting that some people go on a news fast -- stop reading the papers, stop going online every two seconds to see if the market's up or down, stop connecting your sense of well-being to the stock market price that hour or that day, because that's just a yo-yo," Ruge says.
Ruge's advice: Focus on the big picture -- and he doesn't mean your mortgage or stock portfolio.
"What are your real values and what's really important in your life?" Ruge asks. "The deeper values and meaning for most people's lives is in their relationships -- in who they love, in their children, in their marriages, in their friendships."
2. You've been scarfing down comfort food.
Many people reach for food and eat more often when they're anxious, but it doesn't work in the long run, says Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, WebMD's director of nutrition.
Under stress, people tend to seek pleasurable foods that are high in fat and sugar, like chocolate or apple pie. Those foods may provide a "very short-term calming effect, but that's all you get, because food really can't do anything to help you cope with stress," says Zelman.
- Find other ways to relax, such as going for a walk, meditating, or listening to music.
- Have some healthy snacks on hand. Try nuts, trail mix, or baby carrots and celery; their crunch "helps release some of that nervous energy," says Zelman.
- Keep portions small. "If you really do crave something sweet, try to keep the portions small," like a Hershey's Kiss or a snack-sized bar, says Zelman.
"Who knows how long this [financial] situation is going to last for us? Zelman asks. "This stress could go on for months, and it could really lead to some serious weight gain and then, of course, all the health consequences of being overweight or obese."
3. Working out has gone by the wayside.
You're missing out a big stress buster if you ditch exercise and other physical activity.
"Stress makes people feel very negative, and negative emotions such as anxiety or anger kind of zap the energy out of people ... and when you feel fatigued or lethargic, of course, you don't feel motivated to move and exercise," says Sabrena Merrill, MS, a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise and a personal trainer with her own company, Fitness Logic, in Lawrence, Kan.
But "exercise can actually be a technique for stress relief," says Merrill. Her advice:
- Shake up your routine. Skip the grueling workout and do something "a little more fun," says Merrill, who suggests walking, raking leaves, gardening, biking, or whatever physical activity you enjoy.
- Do it first thing in the morning. "Before you get up and go out into the world, if you can take some time for yourself to exercise, you're more likely to get it done," says Merrill. "As the day wears on and we think about our financial situation and we hear the news and everything's so negative, it really does zap your energy."
- Low cost, no problem. You don't need a gym. "There are many great options for home exercise in the form of either books or DVDs," sys Merrill. "Many people struggle with [what] I like to call paralysis by analysis. You know you want to do something but you don't really know exactly what so you just never do it. My recommendation is that you just move your body."
"Hang in there," says Merrill. "I know everyone's feeling it, myself included, and I really do practice what I preach. I was up at 5:30 this morning just to get it out of the way so I could feel better about my day."
"Usually, if a person can recognize the positive aspects -- I'm talking psychological positive aspects, not necessarily the look-better-naked ones -- then they're more likely to get hooked. Then it becomes a situation where they couldn't imagine not exercising, because then they would feel horrible if they didn't exercise," says Merrill.
4. Your sleep is suffering.
Stress is a well-known sleep wrecker, and Michael Breus, PhD, ABSM, WebMD's sleep expert, is already hearing from patients who link their sleep problems to financial stress. That doesn't just include his patients.
"Some friends have made some recent comments to me that they have never had sleep problems before and now they are," Breus says in an email.
Breus offers these tips for getting your sleep back on track:
- Keep a worry journal. "Take a blank piece of paper and write your concerns on one side and then one solution on the other," says Breus.
- Relax before bedtime. Breus suggests a "hot bath, relaxing music, yoga, sex, exercise, whatever works for you."
- If you wake up in the middle of the night, consider counting backwards from 300 by threes. "I know it sounds a bit weird, but you cannot think of anything else and it is so boring you should fall back asleep. If you get to zero, get up and go into another room until you're tired," says Breus.
5. You've been snappish lately.
Basic self-care -- sleep, healthy food, and exercise -- should help your mood. Beyond that, tweaking your routine might help, notes Ruge.
Ruge recommends simple rituals when you get home, like changing out of your work clothes into casual clothes and taking a few minutes on your own before interacting with others. He also suggests communicating with your partner throughout the day, "so there's no blindsiding" with bad news at the end of the day.
"It's a good relationship that manages stress well," agrees Charles Raison, MD, clinical director of the Mind-Body Institute at Emory University's medical school. "Couples that can talk are the ones that are going to make it," Raison says.
6. You just want to go home and shut the door.
Don't get too isolated.
"If your business life is overwhelmed by interpersonal contact and you know by experience that an hour or two alone at the end of the day makes you feel a ton better than whatever your social options are, then you should honor that and do that and not be compulsively social," Raison says.
"But the other side of the coin is that when people are isolated, they tend to get stuck in their own thought patterns, and sadly, when you get stuck in your own thought patterns, it makes it much harder to socialize, so you want to be more isolated, and that makes you more stuck in your own though patterns... a vicious cycle," says Raison.
"One of the great ways to cope with stress is to have meaningful positive social connections," says Raison. That doesn't mean that a little alone-time is a bad thing. It's just a matter of balance.
Also, think about the people you're spending time with -- will they make you feel better or feed your fear? "Surround yourself with the right people who can actually be soothing and helpful and can be anchors in a storm for you," Ruge suggests.
7. You're angry about the financial crisis.
That's understandable, but seething anger can be bad for your heart.
"Practically everybody is feeling the heat" from the financial crisis, says Diwalker Jain, MD, FACC, FRCP, FASNC, a professor of medicine and director of nuclear cardiology at Drexel University's medical school.
Anger may be riskiest for people with heart disease and angry, hostile, or type A personalities, Jain notes.
"It is likely that the people who already have a pre-existing heart condition and are prone to be angry or hostile or type A behavior, they are more likely to be adversely affected by all this news," Jain says.
His advice: Look for healthy ways to channel your anger. That might include working out to blow off steam or lobbying for changes you think the system needs.
"As a cardiologist, I can't say, 'Don't get angry,' because this anger is very appropriate. But all I can say is this anger can affect their heart, particularly if they have heart disease," Jain says.
Also, if you have chest pain, palpitations, or shortness of breath, call 911; don't just talk it up to stress. "You don't want to take a chance," says Jain. And if the economic crunch is making it hard to pay for your medicines, Jain suggests talking to your doctor to see if lower-cost generic drugs might be appropriate.
8. You really want a drink.
That might be a red flag for some people, says Sue Hoisington, PsyD, LP, executive director of clinical services at Hazelden, an addiction treatment and recovery services provider based in Minneapolis.
"I think there are people who can drink a glass of wine and it relaxes them and there's nothing abnormal or unhealthy about that. The people we're concerned about are people who may be vulnerable to addiction or people who already use alcohol or drugs as a way to relieve stress," Hoisington says.
In the past three to six months, Hazelden has been contacted by five or six people who have "either relapsed or their use has increased to the point where it's problematic because of anxiety and worry about the economy and/or loss of a job," says Hoisington.
Her advice: If your drinking or drug use concerns you or someone else, get a confidential assessment to see if there's a problem. Hoisington suggests calling your company's Employee Assistance Program, a counseling clinic, your local mental health service, or Hazelden.
9. Your happiness has taken a major hit.
That might not last forever.
"The impact of money on happiness depends to some extent on where you are on the income ladder," says Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Canada's University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
"People tend to be very sensitive to changes in their circumstances, so when you first look at stock portfolio and see that it's a lot smaller than it used to be, I think you do experience a bit of a hit in terms of well-being. But people seem to be able to adapt to new circumstances very quickly. So even people who are feeling a bit distressed right now will probably bounce back fairly quickly," says Dunn.
She and her colleagues recently conducted an experiment in which participants given bonuses either spent the money on themselves or on charitable donations or gifts to friends. Participants reported feeling happier when they spent their money on others.
"My research suggests that even if you don't have a huge amount of financial resources, use what you have to try to benefit other people. So if you can use the remaining money you do have in positive ways, that can still provide you with happiness, even if your slice of the pie seems to have shrunk."
Her advice: "Instead of worrying too much about exactly how much money you have, think about how to use it best."