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August 22, 2009: Hang In There: More Tips for Coping with the Recession

During recent sessions I’ve conducted in my psychotherapy practice, I’ve seen increasingly frequent signs that our national recession is abating. That’s good news for all of us. However, in the news and in the headlines there are also some signs of its persistence, and the resulting stress and grief that causes. I’d like to offer some additional tips on how people can cope with the lingering recession and its effects. Much of what I do with my clients is teaching them techniques from the Cognitive-Behavioral school of therapy, which is using the power of our mind to change our feelings and behavior. Together, we “re-frame” a negative thought into a corresponding and reasonably positive one.

When people are stressed by the recession, I think it’s important to remember some adages that might help our thinking. Even if they sound somewhat cliche’, they can still be useful to consider. Old axioms like, “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.” Or, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Or, “This, too, shall pass.” Beyond being cliche, we can use these adages to comfort and motivate ourselves into new, positive action to take on our own behalf. One of my favorite quotes is from motivational speaker and author Jack Canfield, from his classic book, The Success Principles. He says, “Event + Response = Outcome.” The example I give clients to illustrate this concept is about receiving a “pink slip” layoff notice as the event. One person might take the slip, leave his office, go get drunk at “happy” hour at the nearest bar, drive drunk, have an accident, kill someone, and spend the rest of his life in jail. Those are examples of a “maladaptive” response and a bad outcome. Another person might receive the pink slip, leave the office, go straight home, and sit down to revise his resume, call 50 friends and tell them he’s looking for work, and read up on some new skills and job search strategies online. He gets a job interview the next week, and is working again by the next month — maybe at a higher salary and with a shorter commute. Very different response and outcome – even though the “pink slip” event remained the same.

Another tip I give clients is to make a list in behavioral terms of positive actions they can take on their own behalf. They start it, “If I’m really good to myself right now about my [job loss, medical diagnosis, debt, conflict] I would ________.” Then, they follow the actions that seem most plausible or compelling. They get out of “inertia”and into a mind-set of self-empowerment, confidence, and optimism. As I often say, “Action is Antidotal to Anxiety.” Another concept I teach clients is what I call “emotional conversion.” It’s like refining crude oil into gasoline. We take a negative emotion, like guilt, and “process” it through an imaginary emotional “machine”, and use that emotional energy to motivate us into something positive. If we feel guilty that we missed an important deadline at work, instead of just wallowing in it, we use that feeling to motivate us to learn new time-management techniques, and to fuel our commitment to more efficient ways of working in the future. Or, if we are angry about a social injustice we observe, we “convert” that into a motivation to work for justice by applying activism and volunteerism to reduce our sense of helplessness and do what we can to contribute to its solution.

Remember that when you are without money, you are not without all resources. You have energy. Humor. Your hands. Your feet. Talents. Time. Determination. Creativity. Compassion. Courage. Resourcefulness. Influence. Memory. Skills. Collaboration. Stamina. And, hope. You are not alone. There is a saying in yoga called “Namaste”, which means, “The divine in me salutes the divine in you.” I like to add a funny little take on this that says, “The anxiety in me takes some sort of odd comfort in the anxiety in you.” We are not alone in facing the challenges of these economic woes. But, soon, this recession will all be over, and we’ll all be comfortable enough that our competitive, consumerist world will return, and it will be “every man for himself” soon enough. For now, let’s try to find a way to enjoy the collective unity that the recession spurs in us. Let’s let the bad times teach us lessons that we can use to better ourselves for when the times are good again. No one ever forgets the people who were “there for us” during tough times. I have lots of examples of people who comforted me at different times. There was the friend who sent me an inspiring green plant when I was exhausted from cancer treatment. The friend who told me really nasty jokes when I was in pain, making me laugh when I really needed it. My husband playing stupid word games with me to pass time during a hospital stay when I spent hours just “waiting” for various things. My parents who have sent supportive, colorful, inspirational greeting cards on every occasion when I faced challenges. My sister who has a twisted, funny quip to make me feel better whenever I’m down. My friends who come up with something fun to do when I’m bored out of my mind. These are the true riches of one’s life, who are worth more joy than any bank statement or 401K quarterly report could ever bring.

For those who don’t have partners, spouses, parents, or even friends, we need to work toward cultivating a social support system of loving people that goes beyond “income” to manage our lives. Living in gratitude for all that we can find around us makes us “rich” instantly, and faster than even winning a lottery could. Harnessing the power of our minds to support, motivate, and nurture ourselves is one of our most powerful tools. It helps you survive even the most troubled times, and helps you over time to…Have the Life You Want!

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