Which comes first – fear or economic chaos? Companies as diverse as Yahoo, American Express and Time Inc. lay off employees. Corporate profits are falling. The stock market is in a chaotic panic. House prices have fallen. Consumer debt is rising. The US economy is in a full recession and possibly a depression.
Money and the economy top a long list of stressors for Americans, as reported in a recent survey by Harris Interactive and the American Psychological Association (October 2008). Eighty percent (80%) of Americans are concerned about the state of the economy.
So how do you deal with the inflexible stress that comes with tough economic times?
Identify Anxiety, Anxiety and Stress
The first step to overcoming stress is to identify it correctly. When you’re scared, your blood pools in the large muscle groups, such as those in your legs, preparing your body for flight. Your body freezes for a moment to gauge your possible reactions, such as what the fastest escape route is. The brain sounds an alarm to alert your body, making it tense and ready for action. This is accompanied by an overwhelming stream of anxious, fearful thoughts that seem uncontrollable. This intense cycle of fear and worry can paralyze you. It also paralyzes the rational mind, making it difficult to think clearly.
Anxiety and stress are closely linked. When fear is fueled, the emotional brain begins its dance of fear, forcing the brain to focus on the perceived threat. The fearful mind spins in an endless loop of negative thoughts. Fear is the root of all stress.
Stress is anxiety that stretches over time. It’s the common alarm response that the nervous system goes off when you find yourself being called upon that you can’t handle. Once the alarm has focused your attention, the negative spirals of thought, the pounding heart, and the muscle tension can no longer help you. Rather, prolonged stress causes damage to your body on a number of levels — difficulty thinking clearly, damage to arteries, killing brain cells, and limiting the number of options open to you.
On the plus side, stress and anxiety can be managed depending on how you approach them. Nothing is more important right now than learning how to manage your stress – the fate of the entire world could depend on a critical mass of people staying calm and overcoming stress.
Turn off the alarm
Once the stress has been identified, the second step is to turn off the alarm. This is done through practice, deep breathing, meditation, prayer, or other means to clear your mind of negative thoughts. If you haven’t learned to clear your head yet, my book “Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide to Managed Emotion and Thought” is a good place to start.
Courage, Courage and Heroism
The third step is realizing that courage is the antidote to fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is overcoming fear. This step involves taking concrete actions to continue moving forward in a constructive direction. By reformulating the question as, “What am I willing to try?” you can make change exciting instead of paralyzing. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the driving out of it. Feel the fear and push through it anyway. It is overcoming the fear that makes one courageous. One cannot be brave without fear. Think of courage as a virtue to be practiced daily, rather than imagining it expressed only in heroic deeds. You are brave… every day.
Focus on gratitude
Another way to recover from stressful times is to focus your thoughts daily on the things for which you are grateful. This simple act connects you to your higher, more centered self. Consider the following:
You live. You are loved by others. You can see, hear and breathe for yourself. You can read and understand these words. You can vote in a country with freedom of speech and religion.
These are all basic principles that are often taken for granted. Make your own daily list of things for which you are grateful. By cultivating gratitude, you consciously remove your mind from the thousands of voices that contribute to the environment of fear and begin to turn the tide of stress.
Look for the positive meaning among the rubble
Finally, look deeply into your current situation and look for all the positive meanings that can be drawn from it. Every situation exists to teach you something. Your best strategy is to discover those life-changing lessons in difficult times and use them to motivate you into positive, constructive action.
An example of a life lesson in this situation is the realization that you are resilient, you survive. And with that knowledge comes power (“If I can survive this, I can survive anything.”). Allow yourself to calmly and rationally consider with full awareness what options are available to you to create your best possible future.
Remember that our country has endured such economic hardships in the past and we will survive them too. Americans are very resilient. We will bounce back from this difficulty with more energy, more innovation and more wisdom than we had before. That’s what we do because we’re Americans. We don’t just roll. We bounce.