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3Qs: Coping with cascading crises

Financial problems can arise in many forms, from the plunging economy to the aftermath of natural disasters. We asked Randy Colvin, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern, to discuss the psychological impacts of a looming double-dip recession paired with the devastation caused by natural disasters such as Hurricane Irene — as well as ways people can improve their emotional health in the face of such stress.

How does the looming possibility of a double-dip recession affect the psychology of people who are just now recovering from the 2008 recession — or who have not been able to recover at all yet?

Even if people came out fine from what we could call “the First Recession,” I think many people will experience some sort of emotional residue. It may come in the form of being generally fearful or feeling overly anxious about the smallest of money issues. Now that the media is talking about the possibility of a double dip recession, people who struggled, and continue to struggle, through the first recession may feel very fearful about the near future.

For people who have experienced a traumatic financial loss – like a job or a house – and then regained it, that’s one thing. But if they feel they’ve been teetering on the edge of financial ruin and the financial forecast is gloomy, particularly when the amount of federal aid will be less this time around, many people will feel a sense of “It’s happening again. I don’t deserve this. I’ve done all I can and now I’m about to experience this same sort of thing again.” This experience corresponds to what researchers call learned helplessness  people feel that they have lost control over their lives and the ability to determine future outcomes.

What impact does a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Irene, have on people already reeling from economic woes?

It exacerbates their feelings of helplessness. It is very likely that there are a lot of people who are beyond feeling the blues. As one negative event after another is encountered, many people will experience feelings and display behavior that are associated with depression. Some people will develop something like psychological tunnel vision where their attention narrows and negative events become their primary focus.

When you’ve encountered financial hardship and the uncertainty that accompanies it, people may have few psychological resources remaining to cope effectively with an event like Irene. It is important to recognize, however, that people will exhibit a wide range of responses to difficult times. While some people will show signs of helplessness, others appear unfazed by events that cripple friends and family members.

What can people do to start to improve their emotional and psychological health even if they haven’t recovered from the problems caused by a natural or economic disaster?

First of all, they should stay connected to friends, family, and neighbors, don’t isolate yourself. In particular, it can be helpful to stay connected with neighbors who experienced the same events. It can be a source of great comfort to have someone understand what you are feeling without having to describe why you feel the way you do. In the case of Irene, neighbors may have individual abilities that, despite being hurt and battered, can help one another. Many aid workers are now trained to look for emotional issues and there is a clear awareness that getting through some of these natural disasters includes emotional support.

That’s how you can get through a hurricane, but in terms of jobs, people may be thinking, “No matter what I do, things keep getting worse.” There are going to be some people who are going to give up, but naturally there are some who will persist. This is a time when people need the support of family and friends. When people are feeling down and helpless, many find it difficult to do much beyond watching TV or reading a book. Friends can help by suggesting small steps to get away from the TV and onto a proactive path. With a friend’s encouragement, people may find it surprisingly exhilarating to take a shower, put on clean clothes, and take a completed application to a prospective employer.

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