Surviving the Economic Crisis

May 8, 2009

11 min read


Coping, persevering and winning in troubled economic times.

An excerpt from Rabbi Twerski's new book, "The Sun Will Shine Again."

Many people have sustained heavy losses in the current economic crisis, but unfortunately the loss of job and loss of savings has resulted in people losing their self-esteem. In a precious cartoon strip, a woman who lost her job says, "If I'm not working, what am I?" Her child embraces her and says, "Mommy!" Children's minds have not been distorted to think that a person's sole value is one's ability to earn money. That is obviously of great importance, but it does not define a person.

In times like these, it is crucial that the family draws closer. Young children sense the tension, and when they ask "What's wrong?" it is a mistake to say, "Nothing's wrong. Everything's okay." They will know that this is not true, and their imaginations may run away with them. They may not be able to understand the economic facts, but if they are told, "Many people are out of work now. Daddy has to look for work," they will not imagine some impending catastrophe.

We must be on guard against acting in desperation. Some people may turn to gambling in the hope of striking it rich, others may borrow money from non-reputable sources. These are dangerously risky acts.

Insomnia and anxiety are extremely stressful, but turning to the numbing relief of alcohol, tranquilizers and sedatives risks serious addiction.

Sincere prayer and faith can be a great source of comfort. I attended a meeting of recovering alcoholics, which was a "gratitude meeting," at which each person expressed his gratitude for having a second chance in life, and how good things were now. One person arose and said, "I have been sober for four years, and I wish I could tell you that things have been good. My company downsized, I lost my job and haven't been able to find another job. My wife divorced me and took custody of the children. I was unable to pay the mortgage, and they foreclosed on my house. Last week the finance company repossessed my car. But I can't believe that God brought me all this way just to walk out on me now. I know that He has a plan for me and that one day, things will be good."

In the Sabbath morning service, we read, "God, You took us out of Egypt and delivered us from enslavement. In famine You nourished us, and in plenty You provided for us. You rescued us from the sword, and saved us from epidemics and from serious diseases. Until now Your compassion has helped us and Your mercies have not forsaken us, and You will not abandon us unto eternity."

God did not bring us all this way only to walk out on us now. He will help us in the future as He did in the past.

Dealing with Stress

Some people have never experienced a stress of this magnitude. It is important that we understand the nature of stress and what accommodations we can make.

Let me explain the "fight or flight" response, which occurs with severe stress.

Human beings are endowed with adaptive capacities for coping. The adaptive features comprise the "fight or flight" reaction, which is designed to enable escape from an assailant or to defend oneself. A number of physiologic changes occur upon the perception of a threat. Understanding these may help us better understand and cope with anxiety.

When threatened with danger, the heart rate increases sharply, in order to supply oxygen-carrying blood to the muscles. Respiration increases to inhale more oxygen and dispose of carbon dioxide. The blood supply shifts from the digestive tract to the muscles where it is most needed. The blood is diverted from the body surface to minimize blood loss from wounds. (This is the reason for pallor.) The liver discharges its storage of glucose to provide nutrients for the muscles. The coagulation time of the blood decreases to minimize hemorrhage. The pupils of the eyes dilate. The blood pressure rises as adrenaline and cortisone-like hormones are secreted into the blood stream.

It is vital to find ways to reduce the stress.

These physiologic changes are very effective in adaptation to an acute assault, whether by animal or man. They enhance the body's ability to run away or to defend oneself. In most cases, the confrontation between the attacker and victim is of brief duration. Within a few moments, one has either successfully fled, subdued the assailant, or has been killed.

The human psyche perceives a variety of threats as an acute attack. A serious threat to one's financial well-being or an assault on one's ego is taken as an attack, and the body may trigger the physiologic changes of the fight-or-flight reaction. However, in this case, they are not effective. There is no safe haven to which one can escape and there is nothing one can do to fight off the anticipated assailant. Furthermore, in contrast to an acute attack, the anxiety is not over in a few moments. To the contrary, it may persist throughout the day and night, for weeks and months. These persistent body changes may exert great stress on the body and result in physical as well as psychological disorders.

In addition to cardiovascular effects, diabetes may develop, the immune system may be inhibited, the inflammatory response may be inhibited, there may be an increase in abdominal fat, acceleration of the aging process, impairment of memory and learning, and in children, inhibition of growth. (Make no mistake. Children feel the stress of the economic crisis.)

It is, therefore, vital that one finds ways to reduce the stress.

I know what you are thinking. "Get me a job. Enable me to support my family the way I was accustomed to, and I won't have the stress." How I wish I could do so. But we cannot live with wishful thinking. Reality is what it is.

"So, now you are going to tell me I should do breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation? You want me to meditate in my condition?"

Instead of wallowing in negativity, switch to positive meditation.

You are already meditating. When you brood over the losses you have experienced, you are in fact meditating. But inasmuch as brooding will not improve your situation one iota, you are engaging in negative mediation. Since you are already meditating, why not switch to positive meditation? It can be done.

There may be a number of things you can do to adapt to your present situation, but your stress level may not enable you to see and utilize them. Meditation has been proven to be effective even in situations of severe stress. You have probably been brooding much more than twenty minutes a day. You should invest twenty minutes in meditation.

But isn't meditation a Buddhist thing, associated with oriental religions? No way! There is much in Torah literature on meditation. The Talmud states that "the pious of yore would meditate an hour before prayer and an hour after prayer" (Berachot 30b). Chassidic writings stress the importance of hisbodedut (seclusion) and hisbonenut (meditation)..

Just Rest

After an extended period of constant stress, day and night, as director of a large psychiatric hospital and emergency service, I felt I needed a vacation of absolute rest. No activities, not even pleasurable activities. Just rest.

I went to Hot Springs, Arkansas for vacation, hoping that the mineral baths would relieve my chronic back pain. I was ushered into a tiny room, and immersed in a whirlpool bath of naturally heated water. This was just the peace I needed. I could not be reached by patients, families, doctors, nurses, social workers or probation officers. After five minutes of paradise I emerged and said to the attendant, "This was great! Just what I needed!" The attended told me that I must stay in the whirlpool bath for twenty more minutes, or I would not be able to continue with the treatment.

After five more minutes I felt I had to get out of the bath. Later that day I realized that I had a rude awakening. I was able to tolerate months of constant pressure, but was unable to tolerate more than five minutes of blissful peace! Something was wrong.

A psychologist friend told me that few people knew how to relax. Most people engage in some diversion in order to relax, such as reading a book, listening to music, playing golf or doing needlework. But true relaxation is an absence of any kind of action. Diversions are fine, but they are not relaxation.

I was in contact with myself, and did not like the company I was in!

In the whirlpool cubicle, I was deprived of all diversions. Nothing to read, nothing to listen to, nothing to do. With nothing to distract me, I was left in immediate contact with myself, and I did not like the company I was in!

If one cannot sit still for fifteen minutes to meditate, it is probably because one does want to be in contact with oneself. Developing a healthy self-esteem will enable one to sit still long enough to meditate. Try improving your self-esteem. My book, Ten Steps to Being Your Best is a good beginning.

Talk It Out

The Talmud interprets the verse in Proverbs 12:25 that when one has a worry, one should discuss it with someone else (Yoma 25a). This is one of the foundations of psychotherapy. However, this does not necessarily mean to discuss it with a therapist. It is helpful to share it with a friend.

In lieu of ventilating to someone, it is helpful to keep a journal, writing down the problems. Of what value is this? It may help you get it of your mind where you have been ruminating about what has happened. Seeing it in writing may help you get a better control of a difficult situation.

Open up a "gratitude journal." You may be so preoccupied with your problems that you may lose sight of the things that you have for which you should be grateful. Too often, we take things for granted. Thank God, your children are healthy. You thank God every morning that you are alive, and say blessings of gratitude for being able to arise and walk.

And, if you think that some of your problems were brought on by mistakes you made, such as unwise investments, make a section of the journal for "Dumb things I did," and record your mistakes. That way, you don't have to keep thinking about them. You can always find them in your journal if you need to.

In spite of your hardships, you have much for which you can be grateful.

A study was done in a major psychiatric center, where depressed patients were made to exercise daily, and they were compared to patients who took antidepressant medication. The results were equal. Apparently exercise stimulates production of adrenalin-like substances which can alleviate depression. You may say that you are not in the mood to exercise. That is understandable, but this is one way of decreasing the severity of the mood.

A friend told me that when he heard and saw the attack on the World Trade Center, he went out and did some gardening. He was not callous. He said, "I felt I had to do something over which I had some control." Obviously, we have no control over the economy, and it is a terrible feeling, much like being caught in a tornado. We may regain a bit of composure by doing something we can control

Look for opportunities to help someone in any way. That is a good feeling, and good feelings extinguish bad feelings.

Laughter reduces stress. It has been demonstrated that people with serious illnesses, even cancer, have better courses of healing and recovery if they can laugh. I had a friend who had cancer. I made up with him that every day, I would fax him a joke and he would fax me one. His wife told me that this helped pull him out of depression.

Remember, stress begets stress and negative thinking begets negative thinking. Anything you can do minimize the effects of the stress will put you into a better position to cope with your challenges.

Click here to order Rabbi Twerski's new book, "The Sun Will Shine Again."

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