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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009; Page F01

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.

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