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No surprise, Americans are currently feeling more anxious about the economy. A survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that nearly 9 in 10 people—87% of those polled—are anxious about inflation, reflecting broader worries about a potential recession as the Federal Reserve tries to slow down the economy to tamp down rising prices.
These fears, combined with inconsistent answers from experts on whether or not the economy is entering a recession, mean that consumers are also making behavioral changes like cutting back on spending and tapping into savings. This anxiety, however, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, according to Angela Sasseville, a therapist and executive coach at Flourish Executive Counseling and Coaching.
“Over the past six years, the American public has experienced an unprecedented number of circumstances that have created uncertainty and caused them to feel anxious,” she told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio, who checked in with Sasseville for today’s Economic Pulse.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:
David Brancaccio: When I report to others that there could, maybe, be a recession late this year, early next year, what do you think? Am I upsetting people?
Angela Sasseville: Well, one of the things that we know from research is that anxiety is a highly contagious emotion that easily spreads from one person to the next.
Brancaccio: We certainly learned anxiety given what we’ve been through with pandemic and the political polarization in America that we’re increasingly seeing, it’s like we have practice with anxiety.
Sasseville: We absolutely do. Over the past six years, the American public has experienced an unprecedented number of circumstances that have created uncertainty and caused them to feel anxious. And current data indicates that upward of 40% of American adults are currently feeling anxious or depressed—that is a 29% increase from pre-pandemic levels.
Brancaccio: But being anxious about one thing can make you possibly more susceptible to being anxious about something else?
Sasseville: Absolutely. Anxiety does not discriminate. It’s happy to run amok on any particular topic. An individual can feel pretty calm about the recession, and then encounter someone who’s discussing it anxiously and leave feeling anxious about it themselves.
Brancaccio: Have you seen this in your own family? I mean, specifically about the recession anxiety?
Sasseville: Yeah. So one of my daughters approached me last week, she had overheard all of this talk of recession. She had a look of worry written across her face, and came to me and said, “I hear we’re headed into a recession. I don’t know what that means for our family.”
Brancaccio: And so you swept it under the rug, ignored the entity, and told her to move on? Kidding! What did you actually do?
Sasseville: Information is power. And so I tried to give her some information about what that would look like for our household specifically.
Brancaccio: OK, because, in other words, address it directly. In other words, you know, you’ve thought about it and you said that your family, there are approaches to this, if we should fall into recession,
Sasseville: Address it appropriately but also give them some context. Because anytime one of us is in a state of worry, there’s a lot of negative chatter going on inside of our minds that contains exaggerated and unfounded concerns, like catastrophic outcomes, that we’re going to lose it all. Things of that nature that we need to bring some context and some sound reason to.
Brancaccio: Did what you say seemed to help with your daughter or you’re not quite sure yet?
Sasseville: It did, I could see a sigh of relief after I told her, you know, what my husband and I would do if we needed to take action to continue to create stability for our family’s personal finances.
Brancaccio: Tell you what I’d do, I nurture the anxiety inside me. So I’m really anxious on the theory that worrying about something is an antidote is a prophylactic, if you’re worried about something, it won’t happen. What about that strategy?
Sasseville: Well, unfortunately, neuroscience tells us that the more you experience an emotion, the more adept your nervous system becomes at returning to that emotional experience. So, unfortunately, anxiety gives way to more anxiety.
Brancaccio: So look, I know we could sign up for a lot of counseling sessions. You and I, listeners. But I mean, do you have any pointers, though, about how to address anxiety, because if it’s not recession, it’s going to be something else? I mean, just look at the headlines.
Sasseville: Precisely. And fortunately, the strategies that are effective will work for the recession, or any other issue that you’re feeling anxious about, you can use the same neuroscience principle to install a new neural pathway that helps you experience a positive emotion instead.
Brancaccio: Well, how do you get started with something like that? I mean, if I’m like making new pathways in the head?
Sasseville: So the first thing you need to do is identify a positive emotion that you would rather feel about the recession. Let’s use confidence as an example. Then you need to write a compelling two-paragraph argument that convinces you why that positive emotion is valid based on your personal circumstances. So I personally might say something like, while I can’t control external forces, I am confident in my ability to adapt and to respond to them. And I’ve navigated previous recessions. So I’ll use that experience to my benefit.
Brancaccio: And actually write it down?
Sasseville: Write it down, put it on paper, make sure that it’s a solid argument that’s effective for you. And then reread that argument to yourself on a frequent basis, so that you can generate and sustain that new positive emotion.
Brancaccio: I just think if there’s a recession, maybe real estate prices will go down, and I’ll find a bargain that also is a positive emotion, but I’m not sure it’s really as helpful as we would like to see. So you have the graph, maybe on your phone, so you can call it up easily or a scrap of paper, and then you do reread it. What’s the step after that?
Sasseville: It’ll be even more effective if you identify a few action steps you can take to support that new feeling. So for example, I might schedule a meeting with my financial planner because that will support my newfound feeling of confidence.
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