Working out war anxiety in the workplace

January 15, 1991|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Evening Sun Staff

WITH THE U.N. deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait only hours away, there's no question what the chief topic of conversation around office water coolers will be. The fact that military action in the Persian Gulf could occur any time after midnight tonight has been a growing source of anxiety -- and consequently distraction -- in workplaces across the country.

But experts seem to agree that if the workplace is where people spend a good part of their waking hours, that's where they'll work through their anxieties.

"It's important for employers to recognize that," says Jim Quinn, director of employee assistance services at Changing Point, a counseling service that assists more than 100,000 people through employer-sponsored programs. "It would behoove [employers] to let employees share their concerns with others."

"It's a natural thing to be concerned about the prospect of war," says Dr. Harvey Kalin, a psychiatrist and clinical director for the state's Mental Hygiene Administration. "No one knows what the consequences would be for any of us."

Indeed, a good part of what fuels people's anxiety, he says, is fear of the unknown: Fear that hostilities could break out here in America; fear that war will only prolong the recession; fear that the conflict could escalate into a much greater war.

And as the deadline grows near, people tend to express increasing empathy for individuals who are stationed overseas, "even if you don't know them," says Kalin.

Dr. Richard Perlmutter of Sheppard Pratt Hospital agrees. "Some people say they're OK, but then they start talking about [the conflict] and they say they have kids in their 20s and they start crying."

It's easy for any parent to identify with families that have children over there, says the hospital's director of counseling and therapy centers. "If you play out the scene of a child getting killed you can get very upset."

And playing out scenes in one's mind over the course of a day becomes more common as the reality of war gets closer. You don't have to have a relative in the Persian Gulf to feel vulnerable.

"Anxiety thinking usually begins with 'what if' thoughts," says Perlmutter, referring to the many questions that are asked when individuals do not feel fully informed on an issue and begin to speculate.

That's why it's important to voice your fears aloud, says Quinn, of Changing Point.

"When we're alone, we tend to think the worst. It does a great deal of good to find out you're not the only one having certain thoughts."

Quinn says that supervisors should expect a temporary disruption of routine in the next few days and that a more-than-usual amount of chatting and speculating among employees is a healthy sign.

What are some other "healthy" ways of dealing with anxiety? Here are some thoughts from the counseling community:

* Stay informed. Keep up on news of the Mideast. "The more facts you can get, the better off you are," says Quinn. If you are a young adult who fears a draft may be instituted, call your draft board and get the facts.

* Recognize symptoms of anxiety. You may have some sleeplessness, irritability, even shortness of breath or sweaty palms. Accept these as normal signs of anxiety, says Perlmutter. It might take some "self-talking," but realizing that the threat of war is a genuine reason for being nervous "can be reassuring," he says.

* Keep busy. "Put your energy into something constructive," says Kalin. "Don't neglect your normal responsibilities."

* Try to use the same coping mechanisms that you would use for any other stressful situation: Exercise, talk to other people, write down your thoughts in a journal, says Quinn.

* Relax and try to minimize other stresses. If necessary, seek out the services of a professional counselor.

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