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Column: Are we turning into a nation of worriers?

Ireland’s public problems are causing private anguish – and it’s all coming out in the counselling room, writes therapist Eoin Stephens.

Eoin Stephens

Eoin Stephens, a cognitive behavioural therapist for 20 years, believes that worry and anxiety are becoming ever bigger issues in Ireland because of our financial situation.

Here he tells TheJournal.ie how our national problems are mirroring those he sees on the therapist’s couch.

THROUGH MY OWN experience – my own practice, but also through supervising other counsellors and working with graduate students – I have a bit of a feel for what people are running up against these days. There is more and more anxiety over the last couple of years, for obvious enough reasons. People have more stresses, more things to be anxious about, and they simply have more problems.

What’s out there in the wider economy is very much reflected in the therapy room. We just weren’t meeting so much of that five or ten years ago; people just were more secure. Not that people never worried; people had problems, but in general people were just less worried.

When we say worry, what we mean is ‘what-if-ing’. It’s not just thinking about something, it’s taking a concern and multiplying scenarios, imagining all the things that could go wrong. One of the key things that we find, both on an individual and a collective level, is that people start to worry instead of doing something. It actually becomes an alternative strategy. So the more they worry, the less they do whatever it is they could do.

It’s a strange dynamic, because people are almost doing it because they feel it is something they can do. But unfortunately that eats up mental energy and paralyses us. What tends to happen – to individuals, and I think also in terms of our country and even beyond – is we begin to worry at the problems we have, and then that becomes a problem in itself.

That’s really what they’re trying to avoid on the European level – that everybody just gets into a spiral of second guessing. People like Merkel and Sarkozy are trying to avoid the markets getting into that spiral – and thereby creating the problem because they’re worried about the ‘what if’. Which is what the markets are doing, because that’s their job.

What are we worrying about?

Obviously financial worries are enormous for people at the moment. But unfortunately finance affects a lot of things. For example health: not just people’s health in terms of the direct stress, but also the help that people can get, because they have less money to spend on doctors and health services.

Another thing we’re beginning to see more of in our clients is relationship problems due to the fact that there are financial stresses. It’s a well-established fact that one of the really negative things for a relationship, or for a marriage, can be financial difficulties. It can eat away at a relationship. People are struggling, they’re under pressure, they’re having to cut back; perhaps one of them loses their job. In a nice ideal world it would be a case of you and me against the world and it would draw people together. But in fact people withdraw into themselves, they feel guilty and they feel angry with each other.

Worry can also be a bit contagious. I think if somebody is doing a lot of what-if-ing and they’re doing it out loud – either with their partner or their friends or in the wider arena at work – then it affects groups as well as individuals. What happens is people withdraw into their shells a little bit; people who were a bit more supportive of each other, everybody gets a bit worried and they begin to sort of just look after their corner.

What should we do?

I don’t feel as a therapist or as a citizen that Ireland is in the spiral of panic that we feared we’d be in. There’s a bit of worry around, but I don’t think we’ve got into a panic, which is good. And we are at some level getting on with things. The equivalent of the worry dynamic at a national and media level would be just doing the subject to death. Analysing it to death, and thinking about every possible scenario that this could lead us to.

The classic advice that they give to people with worries is, don’t just turn them over in your head. Sit down, write them down – that’s a scary thing to do, but do it – go and talk to someone. Face it squarely, don’t just turn it around and around. The worst that can happen is that things change a bit.

Eoin Stephens is a cognitive behavioural therapist at PCI College.

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