THE BLOG

Helping New Yorkers To Cope With The Recession

07/30/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Madison Avenue is beginning to look like swiss cheese, retail feels like a thing of the past and restaurants are eerily empty. However, there is maybe a silver lining when it comes to psychological well-being.

People working and/or living in New York City appear to be gifted in their ability to cope with changes in lifestyle and net worth (that in the past they would have deemed intolerable and unacceptable); my observations of my patients suggest that their strategies for coping embody some common themes.

To begin with, people are able to deal differently with the negative thoughts and feelings than they were initially bombarded with. Thoughts such as "I can't stand this," "we're screwed," "this is unacceptable," "I shouldn't have to deal with this," etc. have been increasing replaced by thoughts such as "it is what it is," "this is out of our control," or "I guess I can do with less." This attitudinal shift toward acceptance is almost profound, and allows one to spot these potholes in our thoughts and steer away from them.

As it has been said, "Life is hard; once you accept that, it gets a lot easier." Mindfulness techniques that help people label their negative thoughts as just thoughts and habitually shift attention away from them can be invaluable.

This allows you to redirect your energy back to whatever you were doing. As Al-Anon says about negative thoughts, don't pick them up. Just because a thought or feeling pops into your head doesn't mean that it has value or is helpful

While it is often difficult to convince someone that their thoughts are inaccurate or distorted, it doesn't take an Einstein to see just how unhelpful negative thoughts and feelings are. Suffering is for masochists. Pain is unavoidable in life. It only creates suffering if you fail to accept it. The shift away from ruminating on certain topics is akin to refusing to water a plant; it quickly dies on the vine, as does the thought.

However, coping with negative thoughts and feelings is really just step one in living a life that matters. We all need to proactively identify our values and corresponding goals. Goals are destination points, specific things you want to achieve such as getting a job in another industry.

Values are more enduring things that matter to you and things that you want to be spoken about at your funeral. Values can include your relationships with your friends, your role as a father, brother, son etc. At its best there is a tremendous overlap between the two. Even when someone comes into my office and says that their values include being filthy rich, generally I can parse that down to a belief that if they were rich people would take their opinion more seriously, they would have more friends, be more active, etc. So if being rich right now is not in the cards, some of these other vales and goals can be achieved. To say it very simply, while people's lives have changed since the economic downturn, it is not clear to me that they are any worse off psychologically. In the same way that we saw people cope amazingly with September 11th, we have seen recently diagnosed HIV victims demonstrate that after three months their mental health is no different than anyone else's.

It seems that we New Yorkers can cope with anything through persistence and perseverance. Having a driver and a personal shopper at Bergdorf's may be cool, but you have too much stuff anyway and most of you are still able to avoid taking the dreaded subway. Furthermore, studies consistently have shown that increased money does not generate increased happiness (exceptions of course include the poor who do suffer and the rich who are paranoid and fear that people only want them because of their money, which can be true). Living within one's means does represent a challenge. Hopefully, people can continue to learn from these tough times. At the very least, we realize that we are not alone in our distress and that there are many people around the world experiencing the same or similar things. This allows us to be more compassionate towards others and realize the universality of the human condition, as cliched as that sounds.

In conclusion I would say suck it up, stop complaining and refocus your energies on making your life something that you can be proud of. Don't spend a lot of time ruminating about things that you can't control. Remember family, sex and nature (not in that particular order) are among the many free or cheap pleasures. Don't let money be your religion.