Finding hope in a 'down' time

May 14,2012

In 2006, auto giant Ford announced its “Way Forward Plan” as a means of restructuring the company back into profitability. It also meant job loss for thousands of U.S. workers — many of whom were based in Dearborn, Mich. — a suburb of Detroit and the birth place of Ford. The larger U.S. auto crisis would soon follow, but to many in Dearborn, it was an unparalleled time of stress, sadness and the disruption of a way of life.

Allison Taylor, LCSW, found herself in the midst of the crisis. Having just completed her master’s degree in social work, she landed an internship at Oakwood Hospital and Medical Center in Dearborn. There, she worked in the Emergency Department with patients experiencing mental health challenges. With the stress, anxiety and depression that affected many of the town’s now unemployed residents, she was quickly educated about emotional health in a time of crisis.

“I learned a lot about how people deal with crises and emotional challenges and how they can either move into depression or find hope and recover,” said Taylor. “At that time in Michigan, it wasn’t easy for people to find realistic hope. People’s lives were turned upside down.”

Taylor said the concept of realistic hope is important in a time of crisis. It’s the process of finding hope without ignoring the challenges being faced. In Dearborn, she found that many people found hope by helping others and acting in ways to feel useful.

“I worked with people who felt as though they’d lost everything that defined who they were or what their life was about — their homes, a job, even children,” said Taylor. “What helped them begin to create a new ‘normal’ was working through each day noticing what was going well, what made them feel at ease or even feel good. Their hope at that time was to make it through each day with as little pain as possible and as much peace as possible, each person with their own definitions. Slowly they began to notice they could create experiences over time that built into bigger hopes — hopes of finding purpose and creating new meaning for their relationships.”

Oregon’s economy may not be as hard hit as Dearborn’s, but local job loss and a still-soft recovery have taken their toll on the mental health of many. Add to that the increased reports of related personal challenges — such as divorce, bankruptcy and business failures, and it’s any wonder people are feeling a bit stressed these days.

Taylor, a social worker and mental health therapist who now practices at Samaritan Mental Health in Albany, said many of her patients are struggling with their emotions in a time of personal tragedy or crisis.

“I work with people to find realistic hope and to foster positive thoughts,” said Taylor. “It’s normal to have periods of sadness in our lives. But we have to work to pull ourselves out of those times. Anyone can find optimism — sometimes it just takes work and practice to get there.”

Michael Herman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Samaritan Mental Health in Corvallis, believes that optimism can protect against depression, anxiety and even enhance physical wellness.

“In a time of hardship, whether it’s grieving the death of a loved one or dealing with job loss, people who can find a glass half-full perspective will have a lower perceived sense of stress. And if people find themselves feeling consistently pessimistic, there are ways to break that cycle,” he said.

Herman said “shoulda, woulda, coulda” self-talk is a key marker for a pessimistic outlook.

“When people say, ‘If I just would have said ‘X’ in my job interview, I would have gotten the job,’ or, ‘I should have gone to see my mom more before she passed,’ they put unnecessary stress on themselves and lose focus on what they can actually control in the now,” explained Herman.

“I work with patients on mindfulness-based practices to focus on the here and now and encourage people to enjoy their successes — no matter how small,” he said. “Getting in to nature, exercising, journaling and listening to music can all help to boost your emotional health.”

According to Herman, even people who’ve long described themselves as pessimistic have the ability to recover from a personal crisis and re-learn a more positive outlook on life for the future.

“People can learn to be different,” he said. “A therapist can help in many cases, but finding strong social connections with positive people, practicing positive self-talk and just cutting yourself some slack can be very healing.”

Taylor agreed that people can teach themselves to be more optimistic.

“No one has to be trapped in a down time,” she said. “I talk to people about finding the one time in their day when they were not feeling sad — maybe it was the 30 minutes while exercising or the 10 minutes it took to put a child to bed. Now let’s find a way to recreate that feeling. It’s about having the best day possible and finding a glimmer of hope. That’s a good start.”