Dr. Mark Rogovin doesn’t need to check in with CNN to know the tanking economy is taking a toll on the public.
The waiting room of his Boynton Beach family practice is evidence of it.
“They’re tired despite a full night of sleep, they have rashes with no clear cause,” Dr. Rogovin reports, “they’re not sleeping, they’re not eating or they’re eating too much of the wrong stuff.
“Some of them, frankly are tearful and acknowledge it’s stress-related, and others come in thinking they have a terrible disease.”
They don’t, it’s just stress.
But that’s no small matter if, like thousands of Americans, that stress is chronic or constant.
What is stress?
Well, back in the day it was a response your body generated to meet outside demands — like that big animal bearing down on you as you gathered berries.
Think of that fight-or-flight rush of adrenaline, or a boost in blood pressure, blood sugar or body heat.
The idea is to make you more alert or stronger.
But it’s supposed to be a short-term solution.
An economy that threatens your job, how you put food on the table or a roof over your head can send you into a chronic state of stress. And bundles of research tells us that’s no good for your body.
Then what happens?
More people end up in Dr. Rogovin’s, or some other doctor’s office complaining of a litany of ailments.
Stress can create a new illness or exacerbate ones you already have.
An 2008 AARP study found that 20 percent of people 45 and older reported health problems due to financial stress. (To compound matters, about a fifth delayed seeing a doctor because of the cost.)
That study also found that while older folks have less stress in their lives than younger ones, Baby Boomers (ages 45 to 63) appear to be the most susceptible to stress that comes with concern about money and the economy.
And we’re not talking about mere headaches or tight shoulders — though they are among the more common stress-induced pains.
In West Palm Beach, Dr. Mujahed Ahmed says he’s seeing more patients who complain of lack of sleep, heart palpitations and dizziness.
To the south, Dr. Charles Metzger at MDVIP in Boca Raton ticks off even more issues: upset stomachs, back pains and higher blood pressure.
Also, research indicates stress can hamper the immune system. While there’s no evidence yet that suggests stress can cause cancer, there is some question whether it may play a role in cancer by “tampering” with the immune system, according to a special report on stress released last fall by the Harvard Medical School.
So what do you do?
First, figure out the source.
Metzger has his patients complete a stress inventory.
“It’s a great way to broach a topic that sometimes doesn’t get broached. It asks questions about your sleep, do you still enjoy things you used to, it asks about your libido,” Metzger said.
He also asks them to keep a journal.
“Just understanding what’s going on as they write it down gives them more distance from the feeling, helps them think more clinically. As people start to understand things better they get a feeling of more control,” Metzger said.
“I have people come in saying, ‘I feel bad. I have headaches.’ Turns out what’s bothering them most is, ‘My neighbor’s fence is on my property.’ “
Even when people recognize the stress in their lives, they don’t realize the toll it’s taking, Ahmed said.
“Sometimes they have stress but think they’re handling it. Or they rationalize something like a job loss, saying they can pursue something else, but subconsciously it comes out. Turns on them. It all goes inside,” Ahmed said.
All these doctors, and others throughout the country agree the next step is to try and tackle the stress with changes in our routine.
Then it may be time to change.
Time to change your bed time for one, said Rogovin.
He often suggests turning back that time even just a half-hour.
Add in some time for exercise, even if it’s just walking. Again, Rogovin favors at least a half-hour — walking in the pool if you’re overweight or older.
Then there are the standards: eat well, rest, ask for help.
“We also try to go through relaxation techniques, biofeedback, massage, yoga, meditation,” Metzger said.
Bottom line: You must find a way to curb that stress.
“The effects are not trivial,” said Sarah Burgard, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, who has studied stress and its resulting health problems.
“I was actually really surprised to see the magnitude of problems. It is similar to the effects of being a smoker,” said Burgard, whose team looked at 3,000 employed people under age 60 who were already enrolled in two long-term studies.
Another interesting finding: People who constantly fear losing their jobs are worse off health-wise than people who actually do lose their jobs but eventually land another.
Everyone react differently to stress.
Here are some red flags to look for:
•Headaches, muscle tension, neck or back pain
•Chest pains, rapid heartbeat
•Difficulty falling or staying asleep
•Loss of appetite or overeating ‘comfort foods’
•Increased frequency of colds
•Lack of concentration or focus
•Memory problems or forgetfulness
Source: American Psychological Association
The American Psychological Association offers these tips to help deal with your stress about money and the economy:
•Pause but don’t panic.
Pay attention to what’s happening around you, but refrain from getting caught up in doom-and-gloom hype, which can lead to high levels of anxiety and bad decision making. Remain calm and stay focused.
•Identify your financial stressors and make a plan.
Take stock of your financial situation and what causes you stress. Write down specific ways you and your family can reduce expenses or manage money more efficiently. Then commit to a specific plan and review it regularly. Although this can be anxiety-provoking in the short term, putting things down on paper and committing to a plan can reduce stress. If you are having trouble paying bills or staying on top of debt, reach out for help by calling your bank, utilities or credit card company.
•Recognize how you deal with stress related to money.
In tough economic times some people turn to unhealthy activities like smoking, drinking, gambling or emotional eating. The strain can also lead to more conflict and arguments between partners. Be alert to these behaviors — if they are causing you trouble, consider seeking help from a psychologist or community mental health clinic.
•Turn these challenging times into opportunities for real growth and change.
Think of ways that these economic challenges can motivate you to find healthier ways to deal with stress. Try taking a walk — it’s free and a good way to exercise. Having dinner at home with your family may not only save you money, but help bring you closer together. Consider learning a new skill. Take a course through your employer or look into low-cost resources in your community that can lead to a better job. The key is to use this time to think outside the box and try new ways of managing your life.
•Ask for professional support.
Credit counseling services and financial planners are available to help you take control over your money situation. If you continue to be overwhelmed by the stress, you may want to talk with a psychologist who can help you address the emotions behind your financial worries, manage stress, and change unhealthy behaviors.
16% of people 45 and older had to use retirement savings or other savings to pay for medical care
21% have cut back on other expenses in order to afford their medical care
One in six, 16%, are not confident they will be able to afford health care in the coming year
Source: 2008 AARP study
TAKING STOCK OF STRESS …
A recent survey by The Associated Press and AOL found that people with high amounts of stress related to their debt were far more likely to report suffering several health problems — including ulcers or digestive-tract problems, migraines or other headaches, anxiety, severe depression, muscle tension and heart attacks.
When that survey was conducted, an estimated 14 million Americans had high levels of ‘debt stress’ that were contributing to serious health problems, according to Paul J. Lavrakas, a research psychologist and consultant to The Associated Press.