by Meridith Levinson

How to Feel Safer and More Secure in Times of Turmoil

Nov 26, 20084 mins

Three tips for mellowing out at a time of epidemic stress and anxiety.

My husband works for a retail company. Business is not good, and so we worry: Will he have a job after the New Year?  What will we do if he doesn’t?  

I don’t have answers to either of those questions, and I know I’m not the only one with those concerns. The United States is facing an epidemic of anxiety and stress, exacerbated by the economic crisis and all the layoffs, unemployment and foreclosures that link inextricably to it—and that seemingly no amount of money from the government will resolve (at least not anytime soon.)

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), almost half of Americans reported in June feeling increasingly stressed about their ability to provide for their families. (I would venture to bet that if the APA conducted the same survey today, the number of Americans feeling financial pressure would be even higher.) Eighty percent of survey respondents polled by the APA in September 2008 say the deteriorating economy is a significant cause of their stress, up from 66 percent in April.

The stress and uncertainty is taking a physical and emotional toll on all of us. According to the APA, 60 percent of survey respondents report feeling ornery and angry. 52 percent suffer from insomnia. 49 percent feel anxious; 48 percent depressed. 47 percent—myself included—are getting headaches. (The good news is that all the additional stress doesn’t appear to be hampering our sex lives too much: Only 19 percent of survey respondents reported a decline in their sex drives, and only 10 percent of men admitted to having problems—er—getting it up.)

As Thanksgiving nears, we have an opportunity to (hopefully) chill out from all the stress and anxiety, and to reclaim and foster a sense of security in our lives.

There are concrete, constructive actions we can take to help us cope with anxiety: We can update our résumés, line up recommendations and references from business associates, review our household budgets and map out potential employment options in the event we lose our jobs. Such activities can be stressful to confront, but completing them gives us a sense of control over our lives when we otherwise feel like victims of circumstances beyond our control.   

Equally important during times of turmoil are the steps we take to nourish ourselves emotionally and psychologically. I realize I’m voyaging into kooky territory by bringing up our emotional lives—and I hesitate to write about “touchy-feely” stuff on—but after a month-long battle with cluster migraines (and a subsequent visit to an acupuncturist), I realized I needed to SLOW DOWN. BIG TIME. I bet you need to, too.

Here are my corny but earnest recommendations for mellowing out:

Breathe. Taking deep breaths is not as easy as it sounds. I’m such a shallow breather during the workday that it’s amazing I don’t turn purple from a lack of oxygen. But getting all these headaches has made me more conscious of my breathing. When I do get a headache, I take deep breaths and imagine the oxygen I inhale flowing up to my brow and dissolving my headache. I imagine exhaling the headache. This technique helps me relax and alleviates the pain of the headache. (Of course, when the headache is really bad, no amount of Zen breathing will cut it for me.)   

Savor a cup of tea. Generally, I don’t sleep soundly at night. I wake at least three times. But since I began drinking a cup of herbal tea before bed (usually Sleepytime or Sweet Rose Tulsi), I find that I am sleeping better. The act of cradling the warm cup in my hands, having to wait for the tea to cool, then letting the soporific herbs work their magic (wow this post is beginning to sound druggy) is quite soothing. Again, I know this recommendation is kind of flaky, but indulge me: Try it, and let me know how it works for you.

Hug your loved ones. Getting a hug really does make us feel better. Researchers who’ve studied the affects of affection on our health have found that hugs lower blood pressure and reduce the level of the stress hormone cortisol while increasing the feel-good hormone oxytocin.  

“Affection can be a simple, non-pharmaceutical, cheap way to reduce stress,” said Kory Floyd, an associate professor at Arizona State University who’s studies affection’s health effects, in Arizona State University’s Research magazine. “Highly affectionate people tend to have better mental health and less stress. They also react to stress better.”