Wellness: Is the Economy Making You Sick?

Don't lose your health as well as your job, house or savings.

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Thursday, April 07, 2011

For the average American, the current economy is the perfect storm. Job insecurity, layoffs, foreclosure, loss of salary and health benefits: everything, in some cases even physical survival, is threatened.

The result is stress, and it's affecting people's health, say experts. Symptoms from overeating and insomnia to, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts have the phones ringing on doctors' and therapist's desks.

It's not just the fact of layoff that can set off anger and panic; many studies show that the fear of layoff can do the same thing. Layoffs have been shown to cause physical stress reactions even in the managers who have to announce them, and in the workers who see their colleagues deprived of their jobs. Those reactions include all the ugly symptoms in the arsenal of anxiety: insomnia, fatigue, digestive upsets—troubles that become stress multipliers in their own right, fraying the nerves until it's hard not to make things exponentially worse by lashing out at family and friends, the people we need—and who need us—the most.

The stress of losing a job or having a job loss looming, of losing a home and an income, is a serious threat to well-being and may need to be approached on a number of levels. Some people's past experience makes them even more vulnerable than others to that threat. When the stock market tanked a few years ago, slashing investments and 401Ks, a friend told me she was doubly angry because her father had died when she was only 13—in the late 1950s—and she had had to help her mother pull the family out of a poverty she had worked feverishly through the ensuing decades to avoid ever having to experience again.

The bad news for her was that the crash brought her face to face with painful memories. The good news was that she had the insight to understand why the stress of losing tens of thousands of dollars from her retirement account was affecting her on more than one level. For many people, counseling—either through a benefit plan if they are still employed, or with a pastor or understanding friend—may provide information not only about how to relieve stress in the moment, but about how to deal with the additional pain when economic problems revive past trauma, or threaten a cherished image of themselves as providers.

Even without examining the roots of a person's responses to what he or she feels as economic failure—falsely internalized that way in many cases, since millions of people who did all the right things are suffering in this downturn—it's important to deal with the everyday stress of it. One of the best things anyone can do is take the extra dividend of time after a layoff and get the exercise it's harder to get when we're working.

In 2008, however—as the economy was going from bad to worse and 80 percent of respondents to an American Psychiatric Association poll named financial worries as their major source of stress—more than half said they weren't using exercise to reduce that stress.

Exercise offers not just single but multiple benefits. It lowers blood pressure, relieves tension, stimulates the production of body chemicals that help keep stress under control, and heads off the digestive upsets that stress causes for many people. Perhaps best of all, it helps ward off the demon insomnia.

Exercise puts you in a healthy spiral in which one good result leads to another. Overeating, on the other hand, puts you on track for more stress, but it's an all-too-common way of dealing with pressure; people polled by the APA 'fessed up to that.

Who doesn't feel like having a piece of pastry or a bowl of ice cream after a bad day? But the foods that give us an initial high by raising blood sugar give us a down later on, and depression and anxiety are twice as hard to cope with when blood sugar is low. Caffeinated drinks may set the infernal machinery of insomnia in motion. Weight gain brings on fatigue, and if it becomes a pattern, may contribute to adult-onset diabetes. Diabetes is not only depressing in its own right; it's also—less importantly but not unimportantly, considering that the stress that caused the overeating stemmed from financial worries in the first place—expensive to live with.

People whose self-esteem suffers from the loss of income, connections and exposure that went with having a job may grieve that loss by staying home and becoming less active than before. But the combination of anger and anxiety—inevitable in the face of a job loss—and isolation is a bad one. In whatever time you can take from the search for your next job and your family responsibilities, get up, get dressed and get out, experts advise.

Volunteer. See people, perhaps people you didn't have time to see enough of when you were working. Remaining active in whatever way you can will take your mind off your problems, banish debilitating feelings of loneliness and powerlessness, and help you feel useful. There are even cases in which volunteer activities generate fresh skills or contacts that lead to new jobs.

Hard economic times actually jolt some people into tackling problems they hadn't bothered to address when things were easier. According to University of California/Berkeley professor of public health Ralph Catalano, some people seek treatment for medical conditions they've failed to address, or get bad habits like excessive drinking under control, in order to keep their jobs or have a better chance of finding new employment. Economic problems may force you to surrender control of your life for a while and turn in a new direction. Given luck and hope, it may be a better direction.

In the Valley, there are health resources for those who have lost their jobs and exhausted their health insurance benefits. A partial list follows:

The Community Health Center of Franklin County, 338 Montague City Road, Turners Falls, (413) 772-3748, and 450 W.River St., Orange, (978) 544-7800 (clinics offer dental as well as medical care).

Holyoke Health Center, 230 Maple Street, Holyoke, and Chicopee Health Center, 505 Front Street, Chicopee (clinics offer dental as well as medical care).

Baystate-Brightwood Health Center/Centro de Salud, 380 Plainfield Street, Springfield, (413) 794-4458. Does not treat uninsured but will set clients up with whatever subsidized plan they are eligible for.

For mental health help:

ServiceNet, 129 King Street, Northampton, and Lower Westfield Road adjacent to Ingleside Mall in Holyoke. (413) 585-1300.

Center for Human Development, 622 State St.,Springfield, (413) 439-1200, and 494 Appleton St., Holyoke, (413) 532-1456.

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