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BALANCING ACTS

Down, and no one to talk to

Anxiety runs high as the financial crisis exacts its toll

''Sometimes,'' says Hinda Swartz, ''I want to tear my hair out and say, 'But it won't be fine.''' ''Sometimes,'' says Hinda Swartz, ''I want to tear my hair out and say, 'But it won't be fine.''' (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)
By Maggie Jackson
November 16, 2008
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Hinda Swartz tries not to share too many of her work and financial worries with her significant other anymore, so she often lies awake at night, her mind racing.

Swartz, a part-time social worker, doesn't want to burden Augusto Guerrero, a factory worker who toils weekends maintaining the four Webster rental apartment buildings they co-own and the one she owns in Worcester. With maintenance costs spiraling, real estate prices falling, and renters defaulting, the couple barely have time to talk about the tough choices they are making to keep their family afloat.

"I am sitting with a lot of things that I'm not sharing. That's never a good thing," says Swartz, who lives with Guerrero and their two children, ages 5 and 2. "But I feel that I don't want to add one more thing to this guy's burden."

The gloomy headlines are inescapable. The chit-chat about the economy is relentless. Anxieties are running high: 80 percent of 2,507 Americans polled by the American Psychological Association in September reported that the economy is a significant source of stress for them. A separate summer survey by the APA found that 60 percent of 1,791 people reported feeling irritable due to stress, up 10 percent from last year.

Yet too often we can't find the right words to communicate our deepest worries about the downturn with our closest friends and family. Some fall silent, avoiding the chilling subject of the plummeting numbers, and all that they entail. Others fixate on the cable news, the next round of layoffs, causing fear to breed fear. "He'll say, 'Just relax,' " says Swartz. "But sometimes, I want to tear my hair out and say, 'But it won't be fine.' "

For most, money is a taboo subject, even in the best of times. Now, it's at the heart of a long-term, wrenching, confusing series of changes in people's lives. There's no quick fix or easy answer, making communications and decision-making difficult, and sometimes even overwhelming.

"With 9-11, there was a villain," says Steve Slaten, a psychologist who is the executive director of Jewish Family Service of Worcester, referring to the terrorists' attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. "Now, who are you angry at? Whose fault is it? What could I have done differently? What can I do now to protect my money? There's no answer at this time. This is very challenging."

The fact that the economy has been healthy for so long makes the steep downturn even more startling and hard to discuss, says Jerilyn Ross, a psychologist who heads the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Anxiety Disorders Association of America and is the author of a forthcoming book on coping with anxiety today.

"It's a real shock to people," says Ross. "I don't think they have the skills to talk about it, because it's brand new." After being let go, one of Ross's clients sounded so casual about wanting to find a new job that networking contacts didn't respond to his calls for help. Months later, he's still out of work. "It turned out to be a real negative for him," says Ross.

As a part-time social worker for the Charlton-based Overlook Visiting Nurse Association, Swartz is seeing anxiety levels rising both among co-workers and in the financially squeezed families she serves. So she's more stressed at work, just at a time when she can confide less in her partner, Guerrero. To cope, she's turning to female friends. "I don't know what I'd do without my posse," says Swartz.

In contrast, Dave and Cheryl Barbato, who run a recruiting business together, are trying to do a little less ruminating on the economy at home, while keeping communications channels open. While their business is healthy, the couple had been so focused on the downturn and its possible effects on their 25-person firm that they felt guilty going out or having fun.

"We had found ourselves over-analyzing everything and over-discussing a number of issues," says Dave Barbato, president and chief executive officer of Burlington-based Talent Retriever LLC. In the past two weeks, "we had to start to say, let's make sure we have some time not talking about it."

At the same time, Barbato is trying to make sure that he routinely shares good tidings with his staff, so they too won't fret too much at home. Recently, he sent a staff e-mail out late on a Friday afternoon to alert employees to a full roster of upcoming client work and prospects for a financially sound November.

"If they're looking at their bills and getting stressed on a Saturday morning, this might help them a little bit," said Barbato. "Our employees are only as good as their home lives. It comes full circle."

Maggie Jackson is the author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age." She can be reached at www.maggie-jackson.com.

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