Fear, Stress, Anxiety: A Global Recession's Personal Economics

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Eileen Griffin always wanted to own a bookstore. So three years ago, when she retired from her job as a national account manager for Random House, she took all her savings and opened the Griffin Bookshop and Coffee Bar in downtown Fredericksburg. It became a local favorite, with live music performances on Friday and Saturday nights. "This is my big dream. When I retired, I thought, 'This is great -- I'm going to open a bookstore and a coffee bar," she said. "Then the economy started doing what it's doing."

Sales slowed in September. In December, around the holidays, there was a rally. But January brought with it a terrible slump. She cut some of her employees' hours and ordered fewer shipments of books. She stopped offering live music on Saturdays, shutting down the store at 5 p.m. instead of 9:30 p.m.

"Rather than paying myself, I'm putting all the money back in the store. I'm praying this is all going to get better in the next couple of months," she said.

Griffin, 62, is terrified of losing her business. She has turned to her friends, her daughter and fellow business owners for comfort. "I have my entire retirement in the store," she said.

The country might be not be in a depression, but many Americans feel that they are. Local and national mental health experts said that the loss of jobs, homes and retirement savings has triggered an increase in the number of people with symptoms related to anxiety or depression, such as changes in sleeping and eating patterns, headaches, and nervousness. Some psychologists and therapists said they are getting calls from new clients seeking their help in dealing with the financial crisis. Others said current patients are increasingly talking about how the recession is causing them angst. Financial advisers, meanwhile, said they are spending more time, on the phone or in person, reassuring their clients.

"People were riding a false wave," said Nicholas Yrizarry, an adviser with Nicholas Yrizarry & Associates in Reston. "Their house values were going up. They were spending money. They were buying brand-new cars. This puts a tremendous strain on people when not only are their portfolios down, but they've lost their jobs."

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 57 percent of those surveyed said the nation's economic condition is a cause of stress in their lives. More than a quarter said they had "serious" anxiety. The percentage of stressed-out people was higher among those who said their finances had suffered "a great deal" from the recession. Among this group, 83 percent said they were stressed, with 55 percent reporting serious anxiety.

If you think you cannot get through this on your own, experts say, it's crucial to turn to friends, family, clergy, financial advisers or mental health professionals. Maintaining your physical health by eating well, exercising, sleeping enough, taking walks when you need fresh air, and doing fun things that don't cost much money are also important.

"Some people are doing what we call catastrophizing," said Mary Alvord, a psychologist in practice in Rockville and Silver Spring and also the American Psychological Association's public education coordinator for Maryland. "They'll think this will go wrong and that will go wrong."

Instead, she said, you should think this: "What's the worst that can happen? And how likely is that? . . . Control what you can control," she said.

While maintaining a positive attitude is important, the experts also recommend taking some concrete steps to financial planning.

"They need to sit down and look at their finances and be realistic," said Terry N. Diebold, president of the Virginia Association for Marriage and Family Therapy in Fredericksburg.

Remember, she said, "this is not going to last forever." So what you need to do is come up with a short-term plan. "Think, 'How are we going to get through the next year?' instead of 'This is going to go on forever,' " she said.

Mercedes Gutierrez, 40, has turned to her financial adviser, Yrizarry.

She has found herself in the unfortunate position of hunting for a job during a recession.

A divorced mother of three, she has come to realize that what she makes as a part-time Pilates instructor is no longer enough to sustain her family. On top of that, she is trying to refinance the Loudoun County house she bought with her then-husband in order to gain sole ownership and is not sure if she will qualify for the same low interest rate on her own. As if she doesn't have enough to worry about, she has seen the value of her stock portfolio decline by 33 percent.

"I have to find a way to make up that lost money," she said.

So far, she has cut costs. She and her children don't eat out as often. She's more careful about what she buys at the grocery store. She has eliminated luxuries such as pedicures and manicures. Vacations, for now, are out.

She gets a little more anxious each time the market plunges significantly. "I call Nicholas or we meet, and it gives me more peace of mind," she said.

It's important to deal with the immediate financial problems first, a step at a time, said Dan Abrahamson, assistant executive director for state advocacy at the American Psychological Association. If you've lost your job, think about family members you can turn to or institutions you are affiliated with that might be able to help, he said.

"Break it down to small, manageable steps," he said.

Once you've taken those small steps, think about some changes that could improve your situation. For instance, perhaps getting rid of your car will help, he said. "You have to make some moderate steps that might begin to change the economic landscape for you," he said.

Then think long term. While you might not think of wiping out your credit card debt if you're trying to make ends meet, it is something you should think about for your future financial well-being. "Do I need to make changes to my long-term priorities?" he said.

Having that long-term perspective will be the key to surviving this crisis, Yrizarry said. And that means not making emotional investment decisions but remembering that the market will recover eventually. "You can't control what's going on today," he said.

For some, the economy is having an extreme impact. In a November-December study by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 54 percent of participating hotline callers said their household's financial situation had changed in the past year. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, meanwhile, has had an increase in calls, from 412,000 in 2007 to 568,000 in 2008.

Richard McKeon, lead public health adviser on suicide prevention at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which runs the hotline, said the federal agency does not collect overall data on reasons people call but that data collected by local call centers show that the economy is often cited.

"People are worried and consumed" by the economic turmoil, Abrahamson said. "They are constantly checking on the news to find out what is going on. They might be seeing what other job options are available if they lose their jobs. It affects everyone."

The irony, advisers and economists say, is that an anxious investor, consumer or worker actually compounds the economy's distress. The fear is driving people to make rash decisions with investments, thus contributing to the volatility of the stock markets. It is keeping consumers from spending money, not a good thing nationally, considering that consumer spending makes up 70 percent of the economy. And it is making many workers less productive at work.

"It is a vicious cycle, and people are under remarkable stress," said Charles McMillion, chief economist at MBG Information Services in the District. "There are a lot of people that are severely affected by this and have never had to deal with it before and don't know where to turn because the country hasn't dealt with it."

Neither Gutierrez nor Griffin, the bookstore owner, have gotten so anxious that they have had to seek out psychologists. But they are working to keep their anxiety in check.

For Gutierrez, it's focusing on her children. "I'm trying to focus more on my health, the health of my kids," she said. "I'm trying to put things in perspective."

For Griffin, it's maintaining a sense of optimism. A Courtyard by Marriott hotel is scheduled to open near her store in June. She is counting on that bringing tourists and small conventions -- and more business to local shopkeepers. "I think we're all expecting things to begin to turn around by spring, and I think that we have to have that kind of hope," she said.

She paused and then added: "I hope it's well-founded."

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