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Therapists: Education is key to coping with economic anxiety

Frank Radosevich II

While the tension of the current economic crisis is acutely felt on Wall Street, therapists and doctors say the financial woes are spreading beyond the trading-room floors to workers and retirees, who are watching with worry as their 401(k)s wither and their assets diminish.

"In my 35 years of practice, I've never seen this level of stress, this level of uncertainty or anxiety. . . . It's been phenomenal," said Dr. Shastri Swaminathan, a Chicago-area psychiatrist and president of the Illinois State Medical Society. "It's just across the board."

A survey conducted in September by the American Psychological Association found roughly 80 percent of people cited money and the economy as their top stressors, up from 66 percent in April. The survey also uncovered higher levels of stress-related fatigue and irritability.

Todd Hasty, an adviser with Nash-Hasty Investment Services Inc. in Peoria, Ill., said he fielded more calls from nervous clients in the past two weeks than when the "tech bubble" burst in 2000-01.

"The stress in this case is pretty well affecting everybody," said Dr. Brian McIntyre, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria. "There is no easy solution for this sort of thing."

To cope with the anxiety, mental health specialists say the first step is education. They urge wary investors to be proactive by learning more about their current situation and reaching out for some needed assistance to manage their troubles. By doing so, people can gain an extra boost of confidence and calm from either a financial guru or a trusted friend.

People can "educate themselves to what stress is, what it looks like," said Keith Downes, a counselor for the behavioral health adult program at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

Downes recommended regular exercising, keeping a healthy diet and getting plenty of rest to lessen stress while also avoiding excessive eating, drinking or smoking.

Dean Steiner, director of behavioral health services at Methodist Medical Center in Peoria, said people should not try to go it alone. Keeping worries and negative emotions bottled up will eventually backfire, he said, compounding an already nerve-racking situation.

Instead, anxious people should take time to unwind and indulge themselves to help let off a little steam.

"If you keep that to yourself, it ends up working on you emotionally and physically more," he said. "You don't have to spend money to be with your friends or family."

Peoria Journal Star writer Frank Radosevich II can be reached at 686-3142 or fradosevich@pjstar.com.