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Mind your health: As financial pressures build, so can stress

Like thousands of professionals in the financial services industry, Cynthia Mulligan of St. Petersburg lost her fulltime job after layoffs last fall at Merrill Lynch. The 43-year-old Tampa native, whose monthly bills include a mortgage and private school tuition for her two children, faced an uncertain future in a troubled economy.

"Panic was my first reaction," she recalls. "It was the first time in my adult life that I didn't know what I would do next."

Uncertainty and lack of control are hallmarks of financial stress, which is taking a physical and emotional toll on Americans, according to a national study on stress conducted by the American Psychological Association. Women in the study reported higher rates of stress about money, the economy and job stability, while both sexes reported increased fatigue, anger, sleeplessness, headaches and depression as a result of stress.

"With the deteriorating economy dominating the headlines, it's easy to worry more about your finances than your health, but stress over money and the economy is taking an emotional and physical toll on America, especially among women," says psychologist Katherine Nordal, APA's executive director for professional practice.

"Women and men both experience stress, but women are more willing to express it," explains Harold Shinitzky, a Clearwater psychologist and president of the local chapter of the Florida Psychological Association. As a result, women also are more likely to seek help. "It might be a fatal flaw that men don't report stress," he adds.

Even people who haven't lost jobs or seen their bank accounts drained are feeling the pressure. "Watching the news every night can be upsetting. We are getting a steady diet of bad news. It's depressing, even if you aren't at risk of losing your job," says Dr. Paul Spector, professor of organizational psychology at the University of South Florida.

Stress triggers the release of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which increase heart rate, blood pressure, sugar levels and other biological responses. In manageable doses, the body can handle it. But over time, intense, uncontrolled stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, depression and other illnesses.

So now more than ever, it's vital to find ways to keep stress from turning into a health crisis.

Cynthia Mulligan says that what has helped her to cope is her strong personal network. "I think the best asset I have is that I have a fantastic family," she says. "I can't imagine going through this without having people in my life."

It's been nearly four months since Mulligan lost her job, but she hasn't lost her positive outlook. She's found part-time consulting work, volunteers more and spends more time at home with her boyfriend and children, who have drawn closer together, she says.

"If you can keep your mind focused and moving forward, you are more likely to succeed," Mulligan says. "When we stop moving forward, that's when we succumb to the dangers of stress."

Yvonne Swanson is a St. Petersburg freelance writer who finds her own antidote to stress in her garden. She may be reached at yvonnesgarden@gmail.com.

Look on the bright side

The economic slide doesn't have to mean a downturn in your personal health. If you already have good habits — eating right, exercising, spending time with family and friends — keep them up. If not, now's the ideal time to make changes.

"Our society right now is correcting itself," says St. Petersburg life coach Christy Morgan. "We all went a little bit crazy (in recent years). We need to look at our own lives and make corrections."

Of course, if you lose your job and health insurance and can't afford needed medical treatment, there's another blow the economy has dealt you. But researchers have found that overall public health actually improves when economic times are bad, in part because more people can't afford to eat and drink out as often, smoke or drive as much. Instead, people make more meals at home and spend more time with family.

"A lot of my clients are working on simplifying their lives. They're getting rid of the excess and getting back to the simple things, like walking, running, biking and fun activities that cost nothing but really relieve stress," says Morgan. "There are so many things we can cut back on and still have a good life."

You can rage against the economic situation, or you can use it as an opportunity to discover how much you are capable of, advises Morgan. Mow your own lawn, walk the dog, unplug electronics when they're not in use, recycle.

"It's a shift in your consciousness. Look at how you can be a positive part of the shift. It's that whole Zen theory of, "Why fight it?' "

Stress test

Stress announces itself in many ways. Here are warning signs to look for; if any of them are so severe that they're affecting your ability to function, contact your health care provider.

• Headaches

•. Muscle tension, neck or back pain

• Upset stomach

• Dry mouth

• Chest pains, rapid heartbeat

• Difficulty falling or staying asleep

• Fatigue

• Loss of appetite or overeating "comfort foods"

• Increased frequency of colds

• Lack of concentration or focus

• Memory problems or forgetfulness

• Jitters

• Irritability

• Short temper

• Anxiety

Source: American Psychological Association

Take charge

Besides the usual antidotes to stress — such as good nutrition, exercise and sleep — try these strategies:

• Avoid doom-and-gloom news reports, especially right before bedtime. Limit your exposure to co-workers and others who are relentlessly negative.

• Identify your financial stressors and make a plan. How can you reduce expenses or manage finances more efficiently? Write it down and stick to a specific plan.

• Don't dwell on past mistakes that can't be corrected. Instead, focus on avoiding new ones by consulting a trusted friend or financial advisor.

• Beware of quick-fix scams that promise to erase your debt problems. Instead, contact your bank, utilities or credit card company for help, or hire a financial planner or credit counseling service.

• Take control. Even if your employment seems solid, Dr. Paul Spector, professor of organizational psychology at the University of South Florida, recommends updating your resume, pursuing additional skills and assessing the job market. You'll feel more in control, and if you do lose your job, "at least you'll have a head start," he says.

• If you're coping with stress in unhealthy ways (substance abuse; neglecting sleep, exercise and nutrition; lashing out at family) and can't regain control on your own, seek help from a trusted friend, clergy member or mental health professional.

Sources: American Psychological Association, American Institute on Stress

Mind your health: As financial pressures build, so can stress 02/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:10pm]

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