Living with uncertainty

“Stress levels increased since 1983,” read the headline in USA Today last week. Not surprised? What’s interesting is why stress is higher for some people than others.

Sheldon Cohen and Denise Janicki-Deverts analyzed three national surveys (1983, 2006 and 2009) that used the same measure of stress. In all three, women’s stress was consistently higher than men’s, younger people had more stress than older people, people with less education reported higher stress than those with more, and people with lower incomes showed more stress than people with higher incomes.

What was different between 2006 and 2009 was that the increase in stress after the economic downturn was almost totally driven by middle-aged, college-educated, white men who were employed full-time. Cohen and Janicki-Deverts theorize that this finding could be related to the “threat of job loss, actual job loss, or loss of retirement funds.”

But what I see is that this could also be about loss of power and control. It’s not news that people who are lower in a hierarchy have more stress than those on top. And since it’s also still true that most of the power in our society is held by white middle-aged men with college degrees and full-time jobs, in some senses those people had the most to lose when the economy turned sour.

The stress levels of women, the young and the poor didn’t increase significantly because their position in the hierarchy didn’t change much. But for white, middle-aged men, the downturn may have been the first time they felt themselves to be on shaky ground. All of a sudden, there were no guarantees.

The Company Men”, a film about the economic downturn, portrays this theme convincingly. The main characters, who thought they had it made, suddenly were experiencing the uncertainty that other groups have traditionally lived with. Depending on their access to coping strategies, they either weathered the storm or were destroyed by it.

Our new reality is that many of us will be living with uncertainty for a long time. So how do we inhabit that reality in a way that doesn’t wear us down and make us sick?

  • Recognize what you can control and what you cannot. The stock market is out of our control. So are the actions of other people. But we can control how we react to events. Focus on what’s present right now instead of worrying about what can’t be predicted or controlled.
  • Be careful of how you talk to yourself. Too often, we limit ourselves by having a negative narrative going on in our minds (I’m not good enough, I’m too old, I’ll be next to lose my job). Practice replacing those negative thoughts with positive statements.
  • Believe in yourself. Easier said than done, right? It takes practice to change how you think of yourself. But if you remind yourself of the way you’ve handled situations in the past, and all the things that you are capable of, your ability to believe and trust in yourself will increase.
  • Write about it. James Pennebaker and others have shown that people who write about their feelings every day for several days can improve their moods and feel better emotionally.
  • Have a sense of humor. It helps us change our perspective on life events and sometimes even turns a potential stressor into something less threatening. Know what kinds of jokes, movies or comics are sure to make you laugh, so that you can turn to them when necessary.
  • Consider the idea of change as opportunity. As Claude Bernard once said, “Man can learn nothing unless he proceeds from the known to the unknown.”

 

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