Tue, Jan 06, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Coping with the economic crisis

By Alina Tugend  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

I didn’t know this — maybe you did — but Nov. 17 is officially “Coping With Uncertainty Day.” I can’t figure out if this came about through an act of Congress or was the brainchild of a greeting card company, but you can send e-cards and even coffee mugs to mark the occasion.

I really think we need more than a day. In fact, last year could be the “Coping With Uncertainty Year.” (And no doubt, the commemoration will continue into this year as well.) Like so many others over the past year, my family faced job insecurity, investment losses and were even touched by the Bernard Madoff scandal.

The year ended up with our jobs safe and our investments no worse than anyone else’s. But the feeling that life is increasingly chaotic and fragile remains. Most of us may intellectually agree with Benjamin Franklin that “nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

But we still believe — and this is particularly true of the baby boomer and younger generations — that for the most part we’re in control. And when that belief crumbles, we often do, too.

In fact, researchers have found that uncertainty can sometimes take a greater toll than bad news.

Sarah Burgard, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, has for several years looked at how perceived job insecurity affects people’s health.

Drawing data from two separate longitudinal studies — the Americans’ Changing Lives survey and the Midlife in the US survey — Burgard and her colleagues looked at almost 3,000 employed people below age 60.

The subjects were divided between those who were worried about losing their jobs and those who were not so concerned. The survey was adjusted for gender, education and income, as well as for those who were more anxiety-prone in general and for those who had lost jobs in the past and, therefore, might be more worried about it in the future.

Based on how participants rated their own physical and mental health, the academics found that people who felt chronically insecure about their jobs reported significantly worse overall health in both studies and were more depressed in one of the studies than those who had actually lost their jobs or had even faced a serious or life-threatening illnesses.

“Chronic stress is extremely damaging to your health,” Burgard said. “I’m an academic and I’m going up for tenure. I know what uncertainty is. You’re unable to make plans, unable to take action. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Of course, not everyone reacts the same way to uncertainty. There are gamblers who get a charge out of playing the odds and thrive off risk. And there are some who may not love, but at least can tolerate, insecurity.

And then there are those considered by researchers (and maybe some others as well) to be neurotic. That’s not a clinical definition, but refers to people more anxious or easily stressed out, said Jacob Hirsh, a graduate student at the University of Toronto who has studied how different people respond to uncertainty.

Hirsh was the lead author on a study, published in the October issue of the journal Psychological Science, which found that those considered higher on the neuroticism scale would prefer knowing something for sure — even if it’s negative — than not knowing.

In the study, 41 young men and women were given a personality survey to assess if they were more laid back or more anxiety-prone. Then they were fitted with electrode caps that measured brain activity as they completed different tasks.

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