Jan. 23, 2009

Taking control of life in a time of uncertainty

Linda Starr

It's cold ... the days are short ... the holidays and the inauguration are over ... money is tight ... the national economy is on shaky ground ... and Cornell is facing financial challenges.

How does a person deal with all these things? We asked Linda Starr, manager of the Employee Assistance Program, for some suggestions.

What would you say to someone asking how deal with all these things?

I would agree that the statement above is true, but so is the following: "The days are getting noticeably longer ... the snow makes for great skiing and other winter sports ... the inauguration was a historic event ... the federal government is taking steps to deal with the national economy ... and President David Skorton is communicating regularly about Cornell's situation."

Isn't this just thinking positively by avoiding the negative?

No, I am not recommending that we ignore what is going wrong. But I would say that focusing on the positive is more constructive in bringing about change than is focusing on the negative. Identifying the things that can be controlled and taking positive steps to change those things are the best coping mechanisms for feeling out of control.

Can you give an example?

Take the "winter blues." It is a term that describes typical changes in behaviors as the seasons change, such as eating more and sleeping more. A cyclical, more extreme reaction to the shortening of days and the decrease of sunshine is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD affects approximately six out of every 10 Americans, women at four times the rate of men. SAD increases the appetite for foods and leads to winter weight gain.

Following the inclinations to eat and sleep more usually only makes us feel more sad, anxious and lethargic. Good coping tools will minimize these symptoms and let us feel more alive and in charge.

What are some of these coping mechanisms?

Eating a balanced diet of healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables, and engaging in physical activities are good. Getting outside also increases our exposure to natural light and helps shift our focus outward on the environment. In fact, any activity that focuses outward, be it on work, a hobby or other people, will help. A light box is also effective for treating SAD.

What about the current national economy and the effects that has had on the university and on personal finances?

There is very little we can do about the current national economy. But, as difficult as it can be to manage our thoughts and feelings during these financially stressful times, we can gain better control over our own lives. At work it helps to maintain good work habits, such as arriving on time, meeting deadlines and taking breaks, because these activities help us feel competent and confident.

When anxiety does rise, pause long enough to regain a sense of calm and collect your thoughts. You won't act in a way you might later regret.

Also, take control over your own finances. Honestly and thoroughly review your finances and make a plan for the next three to six months, including prioritizing expenses and reducing discretionary spending [see article at right]. To minimize feeling deprived of the things and activities you used to be able to afford, find low- or no-cost ways to enjoy each day (e.g., the current Ithaca Times has a good article about local free or low-cost activities).

Any final thoughts?

Whenever possible, focus on your strengths and on the good in your life. You will find that what you value most are not the things that cost money, but relationships. And feel free to make an appointment with a counselor in EAP, at 216-1410 or at cornelleap@cornell.edu, especially if you are experiencing symptoms of the winter blues, SAD or depression, or if the ways you've been taking care of yourself are not helping.