Commentary: Don't surrender to recession stress
Do recessions make people sicker? Some studies say yes, some say no. The better question might be, "How is this recession affecting health?" Not in a good way, comes the answer. This recession -- depression? -- seems different. This recession is messing with our heads.
When the economic arrows first turned downward, a crop of silver-lining stories contended that health-habits improve in down economies. During boom times, the upwardly mobile drink too much and dine often at fatty-food restaurants. Working long hours, they skip exercise and put off visits to the doctor. Some of these unhealthy tendencies reverse themselves in a recession.
For example, Shelley McGuire, a nutritionist at Washington State University in Pullman, recently predicted that a return to home cooking would helpfully add whole grains and subtract salt from the American table. She called this new regime the "back-to-basics bailout diet."
Professor Christopher Ruhm, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, studied death rates during the 1974 and 1982 recessions, and found that they dropped significantly. Less heart disease and fewer car accidents seemed to be the biggest factors.
I asked Ruhm whether he anticipates the same trends in this recession. "It's hard to predict what will happen this time," he responded. "This is a different kind of downturn -- longer and more severe than we have seen in recent years."
We believers in the mind-body connection know that stress and anxiety, painful in themselves, can make other conditions worse. And stress is coming at us in battalions. In this crazy economy, we can't plot the extent to which things will get worse before they start getting better. We face the big black box of the unknown.
Those who owe little or no money and have jobs are also anxious. They see their real-estate values shrinking and neighbors' work disappearing. Their investment safety net lies in the gutter. There seems to be no safe harbor anymore.
In a famous experiment, two groups of rats were given electric shocks. The first group received a warning signal before the shock. The second had no warning. The second group showed much more stomach ulceration (a sign of stress) than the first, even though they received the same number of shocks. The conclusion: Lack of predictability increases stress.
And that's the way it is. One day the banks are in super trouble; the next day, it's General Motors. Out comes a horrid employment report, then warnings of economic collapse in Eastern Europe.
Hospitals report pre-existing medical problems growing worse. Diabetics who were controlling their disease with exercise are quitting their gym memberships. Patients being treated for high blood pressure and still taking their medications show elevated readings. Possible causes: a turn to saltier food or to anti-inflammatory remedies, which increase water retention, for stress-induced headaches.
Of course, mental disorders flare up in these circumstances. Ruhm's study found that even in the past recessions where death rates dropped, measures of mental health suffered. Suicide rose 2 percent and homicide 12 percent.
Psychiatric hospitals are filling up with serious cases. McLean Hospital, near Boston, admitted 31 percent more patients in December than it had the same month a year before. And there's been a run on anti-depression pills, including among the relatively secure.
Back in our cage, we await new economic shocks without knowing when or whence they will come. Fortunately, humans retain a measure of control over their health. There are proven ways to lower stress. Exercise can be free, and a good diet may actually save money. Let's unearth one of those silver linings and tell ourselves: We're still in charge of many things.