“Tell me what the symptoms are and if I don’t have them, I’ll get them for you.” I actually said that to my doctor and he smiled, not because he thought it was a joke but, because he knew it was the truth. When you’re a borderline hypochondriac, it’s hard to distinguish the real from the imagined. That’s why I ask my wife to read the side-effects for any medications I may be prescribed because, if I know what they are, I will get them.
With that type of mentality, it was only a matter of time before I started having panic attacks. I remember my first panic attack: I was in my car when my chest got really tight, breathing became labored, and I started sweating profusely. Having no idea there was such a thing as a panic attack, I thought I was dying of a heart attack. Since my doctor was closer than the hospital, I made a mad dash for his office. Parking in front, I ran in past the startled receptionist and into the exam room where he was with a patient. “Doc, I’m having a heart attack.” He turned and put his stethoscope to my chest and made a few quick checks. After a short time he said, “I think your heart is fine. It’s probably a panic attack.” I asked what that was and he explained that my heart wasn’t the problem, it was my mind that was screwed up. I replied, “Oh, I can live with that,” and walked out.
The Mayo Clinic defines a panic attack as “…a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions…” On the ABCNews.com website, a post states that “…during a panic attack the individual is seized with terror, fear, or apprehension…” Based on that definition and explanation, financial markets recently had a panic attack. The NY Times reported that “After Brexit… fear seized world markets… [as] investors are gripped by a panic last seen in 2008.” Sam Ro, writing for Yahoo Finance, used similar emphatic language when he stated that Britain’s unexpected vote to leave the European Union (Brexit) caused a panic that went “parabolic.” In other words, the number of investors that had panic attacks soared exponentially (or for math majors – quadratically.) These individual panic attacks triggered simultaneous severe reactions to a perceived danger. The result, as described by Ro, was that “In the days that followed, markets around the world sold off sharply.”
At times like this, I have two responsibilities to my clients: First, I need to help those clients, who are experiencing a financial panic attack, to realize that it is important not to react to their fears.
Because, as Ro points out, “Ironically, history shows that fear of a crash has a poor track record of predicting crashes. Conversely, some of history’s worst crashes came when no was expecting one.” And secondly, I need to educate all my clients so they can avoid having financial panic attacks in the first place.
To do that, I turn to The Keys to Overcoming Panic Attacks, written by the Anxiety Coach®, David Carbonell, Ph.D. Like his advice to patients, my advice to clients is as follows. First, “…acknowledge the present reality, that I’m afraid and starting to panic.” Second “…accept the fact that I’m afraid at this moment.” Third, “Wait… don’t just do something, stand there.” And fourth, “Watch. Use the occasion to observe how the panic works, and how you respond to it.”
If you tell me one of the symptoms of a disease, I will get it. If you are having a financial panic attack, I can tell you one of the symptoms you already have. As Carbonell explains, “The thought that I am in danger is…[a] symptom of panic.” But there is no relationship between the level of fear and the amount of danger, so it is “not an important or useful thought.” And that’s exactly what the financial research says about the perceived and actual danger from events like Brexit and other periods of uncertainty. Fear is normal during such times, but patience is more productive than panic because markets will stabilize and recover. So, acknowledge that your mind is the problem and – like me – learn to live with it.