So we are officially in a recession in the UK. And not just any recession, but ‘the longest ever recession’ is predicted ‘since records began’. The word ‘recession’ is one that fills most working-age adults with a sense of dread, only further exacerbated not only by the suggestion that it will be ‘longer’ than ever before, but that it comes off the back of a couple of extremely anxiety provoking years thanks to the global pandemic. Will there be any respite for us all?
Our nervous systems have evolved to protect us from threat and very good they are at it too! We experience increased levels of anxiety and vigilance when our nervous system locates anything in our surroundings that may be threatening to our existence. For centuries, this would involve the literal threat to life resulting from the risk of becoming food for a wild animal or the victim of an attack by a neighbouring tribe. However, the world that most of us now live in is, fortunately, not punctuated by wild animals prowling around us or a neighbouring tribe mounting an attack. This is not to say that there are not dangers around us, but the risk of imminent death has unequivocally reduced as a result of multiple factors such as the rule of law, healthcare and our dominance over nature. Our nervous systems just don’t seem to have gotten the news.
Anxiety, which is the predominant emotion we feel when initially under threat is unlike other emotions in that it seeks to attach to an external event (rather than always being triggered by an external event). Thus, our ancestors would have an underlying level of anxiety they would navigate the world with and invariably when they felt a threat their anxiety levels would shoot up and they could appropriately respond to the threat. The same process happens with modern humans, however, the anxiety we feel is now often unhelpful when facing ‘modern threats’ as these, whilst real, are not imminently life threatening and even if they do represent a sort of existential threat – like a recession may – they are not something we can run from, fight, freeze up against or fawn; these are the four options our nervous system presents us with when we feel under extreme threat.
The psychological impact of the news of a recession can be similar to that of the psychological impact our ancient cousins would face when confronted with a sabre tooth tiger. And this stops us being able to think things through calmly. We then become reactive rather than able to take action.
What can you do?
I am no financial adviser and it is important to remember that each and every one of us will be impacted differently by economic events such as a recession, just as we are all impacted differently by all other events happening around us. But what I do understand is the human nervous system and anxiety.
Firstly, remember that ‘The News’ irrespective of the outlet, is designed to grab your attention – much like that sabre tooth tiger sticking its head out of a bush and into our face. News headlines are designed to sell newspapers, or in the modern world, to get ‘clicks’. This does not mean that it is ‘fake news’ but the devil is in the detail, not the headline. Take time to read the whole article and digest what it means. Think about whether you will actually be directly impacted and if so in which ways. Then you can take the time to take action methodically.
Remember that recessions are a part of the ordinary cycle of an economy and that each time one has arrived, it has once again passed and followed by a period of growth. People are affected but again, like the headlines, the news will report these effects from a ‘newsworthy’ perspective, rather than as a balanced view or perspective on society as a whole.
Limit your exposure to too much ‘news’ even though you will likely be drawn to ‘consume’ more.
This is human nature – your nervous system has signalled that this is a threat and so you are inclined to gather as much information as you possibly can. However, a recession, unlike a marauding tribe, is something that is approaching slowly and will also unfold slowly in relative terms – you do not need to get into a panic.
Focus on helpful ways of managing your anxiety such as taking time in nature, sharing your feelings with friends, practicing mindfulness, doing exercise or anything else that both brings you into your body, into the ‘here and now’, and calms your nervous system. Why is this important? It’s not about denying reality – on the contrary, it is about calming you enough so that you can once again think and if you can think you can make plans, rather than simply react to the news.
It is also worth bearing in mind that at present, what you are reading about the recession is a prediction. In other words, not may not be as bad as predicted or pan out quite as predicted.
We have all, collectively, got through the pandemic and coped with the anxiety of the unknown – the virus – that we all faced. This is likely to be the same.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –
Can couples counselling fix a relationship?
How to get a mental health diagnosis