pastel by PattyRice,

This Year, Take Hard Times Head On

How to protect your psychological health – and wealth – in a new year

By Elizabeth McMahon

Hard time is here and everywhere you go.
Times is harder than th’ever been befo’.
“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”

Surviving Hard Times

Turn on the television, or the computer, or open the newspaper and you find endless stories about layoffs, unemployment, foreclosures and business closings. Even in this relatively privileged and prosperous neighborhood, most of us know people who have lost their jobs, their homes or their businesses. Everyone is dealing with the effects of the recession.

Financial hard times can pack a powerful punch. Suicide, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse all increase during tough economic times. How can you survive hard times?

Avoid These Stress Traps

  • Emphasizing losses and negatives.
  • Focusing on who’s to blame.
  • Thinking over and over about the worst possible outcomes.
  • Making unrealistic demands, such as demanding certainty or fast, easy solutions.
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs.

Use Good Stress Management

Good stress management techniques help protect you physically and emotionally.

  • Physical: walking, yoga, qi gong, tai chi, sports, dance, and other forms of exercise.
  • Interpersonal: reaching out to others for help, advice, comfort, and support.
  • Spiritual: prayer, chanting, meditation, mindfulness, and other spiritual practices
  • Relaxation: slow diaphragmatic ‘belly’ breathing, muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and music

Your Money Is Not You

Remember that no matter what happens to you financially, your life is not over. Regardless of your finances, you still have worth and meaning. And you are not helpless. You can improve your mood, increase your resilience, and reduce the negative effects of stress – no matter how bad things get financially.

Protect Your Psychological Wealth

Researchers in “positive psychology” are studying what encourages happiness and mental health. You may be as surprised as they were by some of their findings. For example, after a certain point, money actually doesn’t buy happiness. Once you meet basic needs for food, shelter, and safety, more money doesn’t increase happiness by very much.

Research is uncovering techniques that can protect mental health, reduce your stress, and increase happiness – and cost nothing. Here are two:

1. Compare Down

We are quick to compare ourselves to those who are better off. Or to compare things now with how they used to be or what we expected: “I used to have a job and a house.” “My 401K used to be twice what it is now.” “We used to make a profit.” “I thought I could retire.”

Comparisons don’t change your situation; but they do change your mood. Try this experiment: For 15 seconds, think of all the ways you are worse off compared to other people or compared with how you expected things to be at this point in your life.

Okay – time’s up. How do you feel? Probably not so great. So don’t do this to yourself.

If you must compare, compare yourself to people who are worse off. It’s like that kid’s trick where you put one hand in a bowl of hot water and the other in a bowl of cold water. After one minute, you put them both in a bowl of lukewarm water. To the hand that had been hot, the water feels cool; to the hand that had been cold, the water feels warm. It’s all in what you’re comparing.

What comparisons are you choosing to make? How do those comparisons make you feel? When you catch yourself thinking about how things could be better, switch and think of how your current situation could be much worse.

2. Notice Positives

Notice the positives as you go through your day. What went well? Did you help someone or did someone help you? Did you notice something beautiful? What pleased or surprised you? What made you proud or grateful? How did you contribute to causing good things to happen today?

Every night, write down three good things that happened that day. Martin Seligman, a leader of the positive psychology movement, calls this the “three blessings” technique. It’s a great conversation starter over the family dinner table.

Positive and Practical – Not Pollyanna

Ignoring problems doesn’t work. Nor does telling yourself affirmations you don’t believe - in fact, telling yourself something you don’t believe can make you feel more depressed.

When facing real problems, people in better moods are more effective, creative problem-solvers. So look at the facts of your financial situation. Do what you can to avoid, ease, or resolve problems. Accept that some factors are out of your control. Then focus on making the most of your psychological wealth, regardless of what happens to your monetary wealth.

“This Year, Take Hard Times Head On” appeared in The New Fillmore, San Francisco, CA, January 2011