As reported by the New Haven Register, September 12, 2005.

High Gasoline Prices Triggering Anxiety

By Abram Katz

There’s plenty to worry about when the price of gasoline is headed toward the ozone layer.

How to get to and from work, how to shuttle the kids back and forth, how to haul freight, or how to keep a taxi running are all legitimate concerns.

So many motorists are justifiably anxious.

But a special anguish lies beyond ordinary everyday angst.

It’s amorphous fear at the sight of $2.99 on a gasoline pump. An inextinguishable insecurity fueled by our darkest expectations.

Or, put another way, some drivers seem to be excessively on edge, psychiatrists and social workers said.

"How will we survive? It’s a threat to lifestyle," said Dr. Robert Trestman, professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

True, what we pay is just beginning to approximate longstanding European prices.

But that doesn’t keep some people from worrying that America-as-we-know-it will change dramatically, he said.

Gas prices also exact an emotional toll, especially for people older than 50, Trestman said.

"Gasoline was far under $1 a gallon when they began driving. What if this continues?" he said.

Might we have to sell our hulking, fuel-draining sport utility vehicles? Move into smaller homes? That is more of a fuel oil or natural gas question, Trestman said.

But drawing anxieties together is natural.

"Lots of things may underlie anxiety. Recent events may suggest how fragile our economy can be," he said. "How fragile things are keeps adding up and adding up. People like predictability. When all of a sudden things explode, it makes people anxious about the whole infrastructure. What’s next?" Is the whole country a house of cards?

"It’s very easy to focus on gasoline prices. It’s very concrete, and it makes you feel more in control if you can complain," he said.

Gas prices also call Hurricane Katrina to mind, along with the agonizingly slow response, he said.

"We’re one earthquake or hurricane from another tragedy. People expect that under duress, the government will maintain law and order. That didn’t happen. It causes huge anxiety," Trestman said.

"We have lots of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ right here. What would happen? Is it likely we’d respond to a disaster in a similar way to New Orleans?" he said.

Add that to gas woes and put it in your frontal lobes. Before you know it, the pop-in numbers on the pump put you on that highway in the middle of nowhere with the thirsty, hungry, panicky, penniless, hopeless crowd.

Barbara DiMauro, director of adult outpatient psychiatric services at the Hospital of Saint Raphael, said the price of gas is a convenient vessel for high-octane alarm.

People are employing several psychological defenses against the sense of an impending crisis, she said.

Some rely on denial. There’s no problem. I’ll always be able to find gasoline. This problem doesn’t apply to me, they say.

Then there’s rationalization. The big oil companies are holding back petroleum on purpose. As soon as drilling starts in the Alaskan wilderness all problems will vanish.

That leaves intellectualization, fashioning what’s feared into a cerebral exercise.

And avoidance, which is self-explanatory.

"Americans are good at denial," DiMauro said. "All of these defense mechanisms keep you from dealing with the situation at hand."

So people keep driving and ignore other modes of transportation, such as buses, trains, bicycles or carpools.

"People are not flexible. To make a change requires energy and some stress, and people are already stressed out to the max," DiMauro said.

People may over-identify with the hurricane victims and become sad or depressed, she said. "Gas prices might remind you of them."

Some anxiety is a helpful motivator, Trestman said.

Anxiety that interferes with daily functioning needs professional attention, he said.

If the psychiatrist or psychologist is within walking distance, all the better.