Psychotherapy Perspectives

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Controlling Anxiety about the Economy

by Garth Mintun, LCSW, ACSW, CSW-G

Many people come to my Indianapolis Indiana private psychotherapy practice alarmed with “stress”, “anxiety attacks” and “panic attacks”. The common themes of concern are often external events like relationships, the economy, hardships of the family and financial issues. Often people judge themselves based on their past decisions and worry about how they will handle future events. Stress, anxiety, anxiety attacks and panic attacks can be traced on a continuum of fear, with the severity of stress on the one side and panic attacks being the most severe. Full flung panic attack consists of a simulation of the person losing control and being “blind sighted” into abject fear.

Many of us have fear about the economy. We read the papers and internet bloggers about where the economy may go in the future. We hear the pundits on TV warning us about the “Great Depression”. Perhaps we go to survivalist web site and hear their dire predictions of the end of the world as we know it. Our imaginations can be crueler than the reality of the present situation. We scare ourselves with our imagination and that can be augmented by the joining of other people’s imaginations. Unfortunately we also torture ourselves by the worst case scenario over and over , sometimes on a daily basis.

My suggestion: Be here in the present now! Look at the situation right now. Are you breathing? Do you have food on the table and a roof over your head today? If the answer to those questions is yes, reality is kinder than our imagination.

When you think of the worst case scenario, are you dismissing the infinite scenarios of the universe? Perhaps with an economic recession we will have to tighten our budgets. For example, we may have to take a job that pays less for awhile, which is not the worst case scenario of being homeless. Are you homeless now? Maybe your are looking for another job and sent out 10 resumes over the internet. Perhaps a reframe is that money is tight, but I have a roof over my head right now, I have food today and I sent out ten resumes towards a potential new job.

Even if the worst case scenario happened, the reality of it would be kinder than our imagination. People lived through the Great Depression and people lived through the double digit inflation times of the 70’s with a gas shortage. When we have a real and present danger in life, we act and don’t have to think about it. If we are in danger we are either in fight or flight. If a bear comes after us, we either protect ourselves from the bear or we run. and we don’t imagine what to do, we just do it. When we imagine a bear attacking us, we still go through the fight or flight survival mode in our minds, even if the bear is not really attacking us. We tend to go in survival mode, have heart palpitations, adrenalin is released and we go into “bear survival mode”. Often anxiety and stress takes place when there is no bear in the room, no homelessness, no starvation, we just worry about those possibilities by creating the “bear survival mode”. After doing this over and over again, we become exhausted and tired. Either we cannot fall asleep or sleep too much. The stress of our imagined future fears or anxiety may cause us to overindulge in food, alcohol, chemical substance, shopping, gambling or a host of other compulsive activities to numb us from feeling the pain of “bear survival mode” If we keep this going then we can make ourselves physically weaker from the stress and then we have new problems to worry about. All this is un-necessary if we stay with the reality of the present.

Please understand I am not encouraging you to be passive. Instead, focus on what can be done, become pro-active and plan for the future without scaring yourself about the future. Look at job options, the second part time job to earn more money, and manage problems with your health and your prized relationships. Be interested and curious about your process of “catastrophizing” and exaggerating the future, allow yourself to catch yourself in those dire thoughts and fantasies, and notice that in the present those events and circumstances are not present in your life at this moment, and remind yourself the future is still unknown. Name your projections into the future so that you begin to distinguish the present from future fears, and remember your own history of overcoming adversity, take stock of the wisdom of your life experience.

In summary, when you are emotionally triggered to go to the worst case scenario , go back to the present reality and ask yourself what is going on that minute. Are you breathing, do you have a roof over your head tonight , do you have food ? Ask if the less adverse scenarios are equally true or more true the worst case scenario. Finally be kind to yourself because the only thing any of us have is the present reality and all the other dire thoughts are negative places. Be kind and be present!


  • I really liked this blog. I have been so stressed for the past few months, wondering what is going to happen to my own family and our somewhat dire financial situation. There has been just no good news as of late, but you are right. We stil have a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes we can wear. There are so many people worse off than me yet I often have a hard time looking beyond my own situation. I have been thinking of doing some volunteer work lately and I think this is just what I needed to get me moving in the right direction. I am stressed and anxious but feel that perhaps if I can begin to help and give a little back to others then perhaps this will help calm me as I muddle through my own messes.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 7:05 PM  

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