Mental health counselors like Don Durkee have been talking more about jobs and 401(k)s and less about “family-of-origin” issues when helping clients reduce stress in their lives.
It wasn’t long ago, Durkee said, that the lion’s share of the one-on-one conversations in his Sandy Springs office focused on a client’s aspirations for the future.
“Aspiration is choice and the exercise of power,” said Durkee, incoming president of the 2,800 member Licensed Professional Counselors Association of Georgia.
But the economic crisis of the last few years knocked choice and power out of many workers’ lives.
“The issue became not growing, but surviving,” Durkee said. “The environment shifted and clients felt a loss of control. People are feeling powerless.”
What happens when they feel that way?
“They’ll wonder ‘what’s wrong with me,’” he said. “There are feelings of failure, even if the layoff is not caused by the person.”
Stress, anxiety, substance abuse, depression and suicide can rise as a result.
“Stress is what keeps therapists in business and, in the modern world, stress is a way of life,” Durkee, 68, said. “I’m getting more referrals from physicians … who can’t find an organic cause” for complaints, including sleeplessness and gastrointestinal discomfort.
Obsessive compulsive disorder also can increase, Durkee explained, because some people try to regain a sense of control in their lives by adopting a ritual, such as repeatedly checking locks in the house.
These days, men may be particularly vulnerable to stress — they’ve been laid off in greater numbers, which is compounded by the fact that many have gained much of their self-worth from their work.
“There is a widespread sense of shame [among men],” he said. “When they lose their job, they lose a part of themselves.”
This recession not only has affected the jobless, Durkee said, but also those who remain employed. Many are fearful of losing their jobs. To compensate, they work on holidays, weekends and vacations.
“There’s pressure to do more and more and more,” he said. Ironically, that could lead to burnout and eventual job loss.
What are the best ways to cope?
One key, Durkee said, is to for people to reduce unrealistic expectations of themselves and their situation.
To do that, he gets clients to talk about their expectations, as they try to come up with an appropriate blend of hope and realism. They also define a course of action for the job search, which often includes networking or volunteering.
The goal is to reduce uncertainty — the enemy of both the stock market and emotional health, Durkee said.
He also advises clients to “look for choices that create choices.” In other words, go back to school to improve your skills. Or leverage the transferable skills already developed in one job to land another job.
Finally, Durkee is a big believer in investing in your physical well-being through diet, exercise and rest.
“Keep your equipment in good working order,” he said. “Take 30 minutes a day and sit under a tree. Take time to be with yourself. It’s not the quantity of time [that matters], but the quality of time.”
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