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The Psychological Earthquake of Economic Uncertainty

For the past couple of months I’ve been recognizing a trend in some of the issues people are bringing into therapy.  Yes, there’s the depression, anxiety, substance use or conflicted marriages that people bring in, but there’s an increasing theme of a specific type of uncertainty.

This theme appears to cross fields of political, socio-economic and even age and gender difference.  And lately this theme has been one of economic uncertainty.  Whether people have been impacted by the latest round of job cuts, or even by the fear of uncertainty that some express, both are palpable within themselves, and ultimately within the home and workplace.

My thought is that what many of us may be witnessing is a coalescing of issues to the point where people are finding a common ground with their concerns.  Consider it a “misery loves company”, but with an opportunity for growth.  Where the misery moves aside, and makes way for people to recognize that they are not alone in their time of plight and worry.  Being a former resident of Southern California I, not surprisingly, compare it to the geological phenomena of an earthquake.  Basically, an earthquake spares no one.  Whether it’s a 3.6 or something of a much greater magnitude, the shockwaves don’t dance around homes, but rather they expand out like the ripples in a pond leaving no surface of the water unaffected.  Some are impacted more than others, but all are impacted.   And it is this trend that I’ve been seeing more and more.  Except here it isn’t a geological tremor, but rather one of uncertainty.

Throughout my 20 years in the field I’ve seen resilience in all forms, and quite often I’ve seen it manifest in the unlikeliest of individuals.  Resilience and fortitude most often has been displayed with those clients of mine who are financially impoverished and have been for generations.  Impoverished financially, yes, but they’ve come to recognize and embrace that their worth is not measured in dollars and cents, but by their commitment to family and dedication to seek help.  True, if given an opportunity, or seizing one to make a better living, they’d take in a heartbeat.  But while that positive outcome awaits, they still define themselves in other ways.  Now, however, and as it relates to the economic concerns our families bring into therapy we are finding that families with little history of economic uncertainty are now faced with challenges that extend far beyond the economic.  Challenges that cause them to question, and many for the first time, how they define themselves.  They ask themselves, “Am I defined by the tangibles of where I live, the car I drive, or the number of leagues my children are in?”  Or, “Will I ultimately be defined by how I traverse this challenge in my life?”  For some this becomes an existentialist proposition.  What am I worth?  Do I have value?  Will my family love me if, for the first time, I have difficulty providing for them?

The answer ideally is one that results in the person being stronger than they were before.  The answer is one that ideally results in resilience not being created, but rather being discovered within.  And the answer ideally is one that inspires the challenged one to forge ahead with a keen focus on what truly matters most.

Again, like an earthquake these tremors are spreading far beyond the communities of North Milwaukee and are impacting many of those we work with.  Whether in Ozaukee, Racine or Milwaukee County, it comes across as a client dealing with alcoholism, or children who are expressing their parent’s job loss through depression, and for others it comes across in the workplace, where the job just doesn’t feel as enjoyable knowing that more cuts may be on the way.  But whether we’re looking at a family with generations of poverty, or a family who is just now facing economic uncertainty, both can find hope and resilience in the experience of the other.  And in the end inspire them to move forward with purpose, all the while emerging more grounded in what truly matters most.

Written by – Kenneth Cole, Psy.D.