During my sixteen years of practice, I have never before seen so many people with high levels of anxiety and depression, fueled (at least in part) by the economy. Our society is gripped by one of the symptoms of panic disorder, a sense of impending doom - that the next shoe is about to fall, that calamity lurks around the corner.
How do we shift the mood of the country? How do we instill faith and hope in Americans?
First, we have to be honest. People have an internal barometer for truth. If we try to tell them that the economic picture is rosy, or that it will be in a few months, we won't reach anyone because everyone will know that we're trying to sell them a line, trying to artificially "stimulate" them (word choice intentional, as in stimulus) to feel better.
Second, we can point out that the economy will indeed recover, as it always has. We can have leaders front and center adopting a sober confidence like that of Teddy Roosevelt, who said, "I'm as strong as a bull moose, and you can use me to the limit." People in the midst of an economic downturn or a psychological depression need to know that their "therapist" can handle the crisis. I've never told a patient that I wonder whether I'll be able to help him or her, and I never will. I tell all of them that I won't stop short of success, that we're in it together and that I don't do the work I do in order to fail.
Third, we must convey that hope comes from within, from deep character, from taking any situation, even a dire one, and responding to it in the most courageous and loving way possible. That's why there is "hope" in learning that you can do the right thing comforting your children even when anxiety plagues you about the economy. It is about deriving real hope and self-esteem from taking a second job, even when you're tired, or from downsizing when you must, even though it hurts. There is hope in learning of what we are made of as individuals and as a people, that we cannot be destroyed in our spirits by anything. We should know that we will be judged by our children and by our neighbors and our friends and our colleagues not by what we have, but by what we have inside us to call upon in times of hardship. In this way, we can move from seeing ourselves as victims to seeing ourselves as survivors. And there's very real hope in that.
Fourth, we must come to see that "wealth" has never really resided in the grandeur of one's home or the purchasing power of one's household or even in one's job. Genuine wealth is in the value of one's connection to oneself, one's country, one's spirituality and one's God. It is in the "payback" of a child's smile when we meet him or her at school for the walk or the ride home. It is in a bedtime story read even in the face of fatigue and anxiety. Walk around a cemetery and you will find no gravestone etched with a person's profession or net worth. You will see what really matters: "Loving Father," "Devoted husband," "Cherished Son." This is no Hallmark card and no cliche. It is real evidence of what people actually value in the end. It is our irreducible net worth. You can lose every worldly possession, and if you retain your character and the love of your family and yourself, you are a rich person. In this regard, not one of my patients - ever - in 16 years of practice has evaluated his or her mother or father according to how much wealth that person accumulated or lost. Every single one of them has spoken of the quality of that parent's love, whether it was genuine and palpable. It didn't matter a bit whether the parent was a world-beater in business or someone who never had money in the bank.
Fifth, and finally, we can give people hope by having them focus, when possible (and it is not easy) on the suffering of others. Being of use amidst a crisis lifts people up. It's healing to oneself and to the other individual when you look someone in the eye and say, "How are you doing?" Then pause, and add ... "Really, I mean it ... You doing ok?" In other words, human empathy trumps all.
John D. Rockefeller put it best when he said: "Love is the greatest thing in the world. It alone can overcome hate." He also said: "Only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed, and the greatness of the human soul set free."
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at
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