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TODAY contributor
updated 5/20/2009 6:20:25 PM ET 2009-05-20T22:20:25

According to a new poll by the American Psychoanalytic Association, 84 percent of analysts say their patients are experiencing anxiety and depression because of the economy.

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Even with the recent signs of an economic turnaround, 74 percent of those analysts are not seeing a decline in their patients’ worry or sadness.

In other words, the economic picture has been improving in recent days, but the anxiety provoked by the economy won’t go away all that quickly. Once traumatized, people don’t typically bounce back immediately. Even the newfound positive signs are not allaying our fears — not much and not yet.

Real-life worries
I have a patient. Let’s call her Jane Doe. Her husband lost his job, but the couple worried this would happen long before it actually did.

They have a child headed to college, but they are no longer sure what caliber of education they can afford.

Jane has never worked, but she and her husband both agree she must look for a job. She is terrified at the prospect — not only because there are so few jobs, but because she has never been in the workforce and doesn’t know where to begin.

She is anxious, upset, frightened and unable to sleep.

The economic news, however, is looking up. Even Jane’s family noticed that the value of their stocks has risen slightly, in accordance with what they have read in the papers.

Now that the economy might be turning around, people should be feeling better and looking forward with renewed hope, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Jane, like many people, continues to feel bad. She has a newfound recognition that life is fragile and precarious — even scary.

So the news that the economy is looking up is not really much of a relief. Americans have had a big wake-up call.

Bursting the bubble
In the long run, this is not necessarily bad. Many of us have lived in a bubble, thinking there will always be more, more, more. People once assumed they could always get credit, charge their purchases, afford what they wished. Trends seemed to indicate that salaries would increase, investments would pay off and real-estate values would go up. It’s time to rethink those attitudes.

For some people, the anxiety and depression sparked by the sour economy has taken on a life of its own, sucking them into a downward spiral. They fear they may lose their jobs, homes and dreams. There have even been some murder-suicides over huge family debt. Couples are taking their feelings out on each other. Children sense the panic and worry about both present and future.

Anxiety and depression can result from traumatic experiences or even the perception of danger. You need not actually lose your job to feel the pain of loss — you need only be afraid you will lose it.

I urge people to look at their situation realistically. Once they do, they see it is usually not quite so bad. There are often concrete, positive steps they can take.

Still, it can take time for the mind to process the good news and for worry to subside. People get “used to” feeling bad. Despite wishing their bad feelings would stop, a pattern of negative and upsetting thoughts can linger. Anxiety grows, judgment shrinks and people in the grips of such symptoms end up feeling awful and even acting in self-destructive ways that only make their situation worse.

This lag in mood improvement is important. People should recognize that their worries often remain exaggerated relative to the reality. Once they gain real perspective, their fears can ease.

If you continue to feel anxiety or sadness most days, with difficulty concentrating, sleeping or enjoying anything, you may need help from a trained professional. Anxiety and depression are very treatable.

Any ideas, suggestions in this column are not intended as a substitute for consulting your physician or mental health professional. All matters regarding emotional and mental health should be supervised by a personal professional. The author shall not be responsible or liable for any loss, injury or damage arising from any information or suggestion in this column.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her most recent book is “The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life” (Rodale). For more information, please visit www.drgailsaltz.com.

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