December 1, 2001

Living in A War Zone

The greatest loss on September 11 was our sense of

After the initial shock of September 11 had passed, many of us hoped to help our loved ones, clients, and ourselves heal. But as succeeding events showed clearly, this situation is far from over.

Can we live in an ongoing atmosphere of threat without becoming distraught, panicky, or numb? If you are continuing to experience stress-related problems in your work life, these suggestions may help you handle them.

Although I've tried hard to manage my stress levels lately, none of the usual remedies work. Walking and jogging leave me as tense as ever. When I try to talk things over with my spouse, it just stresses us both. Do I need professional help? The stress we've been experiencing is truly unprecedented in this country. At the best of times, most of us struggle to cope with worries about health, children, spouses, jobs, finances, and so on. This everyday tension has been increased exponentially by the feeling of living in a country under siege.

So even though all your tried-and-true methods are good, don't expect them to have an effect overnight. It will take time to stoke the fires of your formerly centered self.

In the meanwhile, don't make the mistake of isolating yourself. Continue to talk about the way you feel. In fact, you should reach out even more to loved ones and friends around you--perhaps even to a spiritual advisor. Consider joining community volunteers who are helping in some way to improve the situation.

There truly is strength in numbers. Whether you connect in person or via the Internet, keep trying to return to reassuring routines, worthwhile work, and meaningful relationships on all levels. If your stress still doesn't improve, professional counseling may help. But don't jump to the conclusion that this is necessary before patiently exploring alternatives in your own backyard.

A client of mine is so upset about our country's military response to terrorism that he wants to move all his assets into a few stocks focusing on peaceful values. I have no problem with his desire to express his beliefs, but abandoning his well-diversified portfolio could prove disastrous in the long run. What should I do? It's perfectly natural for this tense world situation to inspire a reevaluation of our life course, including the causes we support financially. But action should come after careful thought, not on impulse.

I would address this client's request by empathizing with his desire to make a difference in the world. Ask him to share his values and ideals with you in more detail. Once you have respectfully explored these avenues, you may be able to suggest more focused ways to achieve his goals. For example, giving directly to causes he believes in, or volunteering his own time and abilities, could be personally fulfilling as well as effective.

If he remains firm in wanting to invest in these chosen stocks, be sure he's clear on the risks they present. Investors with survivor guilt, or guilt at our society's affluence, may even choose certain stocks purposely to lose money. If you suspect that this may be the case, you'll need to address the issue with great sensitivity so he doesn't feel judged or attacked.

After some discussion, he may be willing to keep at least some of his portfolio in more broadly diversified investments. This would assist you in protecting his longer-term financial security, while helping him feel that he is expressing his values in a forceful way.

Lately, the productivity of the financial planners on my staff is way down. They seem listless and unable to concentrate. I've thought about having a strategy session to discuss new ideas and get them more excited about the future. What do you think? This may not be the time to push for new strategic concepts or organizational change. Routine and structure can help the healing process by allowing people to build on what feels normal and familiar.

Start by letting your staff know that you believe in the importance of coming to grips with troubling thoughts, fears, and other feelings. Establish a weekly get-together expressly for emotional sharing and healing.

In addition, consider hiring an outside facilitator for a staff retreat. By taking your colleagues out of their normal work environment to a peaceful place, you'll make it possible for them to dedicate more time to support each other. Eventually, you can add future business planning to the agenda.

I'm training a colleague to take over my practice as I move toward retirement. She has a son in the Army who is now serving in some unknown location. In recent weeks, she has become increasingly forgetful and irritable at work, so much so that I'm having second thoughts about leaving my clients in her charge. What should I do? Consider inviting your colleague for a quiet dinner where she may feel more comfortable airing her needs and anxieties. Once you hear her concerns, see if you and she can strategize ways to provide her with more support at work. Encourage her to stay balanced by making time for personal activities that help her feel more serene.

Then, check in with her once a week in a patient, non-pressuring way to discuss her feelings. There is no way you can entirely assuage her anxiety about her son, but your steady support may help her feel less distressed. If you feel your intervention is having no effect, consider suggesting in a compassionate, matter-of-fact way that talking to a counselor might help lighten her burden. Urge her to shop around until she finds someone she feels truly comfortable with.

In any case, I hope you'll give her the benefit of the doubt before changing your succession plan. This mother in crisis needs time and healing before she can extend her nurturing abilities to the clients in your practice. Once she stabilizes herself, your clients are likely to appreciate the empathy and concern she will be able to direct toward them.

The other day, a longtime client of mine bent my ear for half an hour recounting his preparations for a terrorist attack. He has stockpiled gas masks, antidotes, weapons, food, and water. I personally believe that living in fear is a surrender of personal freedom, but I don't want to offend this client by criticizing his views. How should I respond? First, consider the psychology behind your client's conduct. When people feel powerless, they often believe that taking action will somehow help them control the situation. Many do feel better for it, even if that control is illusory.

So after letting your client vent a little about the precautions he's taken, you might say something like "It's good that you've gotten so proactive about protecting yourself and your family." If he presses you about making the same preparations yourself, it's okay to say, "What works best for me is trying to live as normally as I can."

In any event, try not to become impatient or judgmental. With daily reports of anthrax and other terrorist tactics, his hypervigilance is a perfectly normal response. It's just not the only way to respond.

A client I know well, and like, has been edgy about small things that never used to bother him. Yesterday, he blew up at my assistant and left her in tears. I'm angry about this and wonder how best to handle it. During troubled times, it's important to build bridges between people without judging the way they respond to stress and trauma.

I think you can help both your client and your assistant reestablish perspective and balance. First, call or meet with the client to see how he's doing. At the right moment, ask what happened that made him so upset with your assistant. Explore his own stresses with him, and see if the two of you can think of things that might relax him in these upsetting times. If he regrets the blowup, suggest that he call or write your assistant to apologize.

Then meet with your assistant. While sympathizing with her hurt feelings, help her understand the stresses that fueled the client's unfair overreaction. If he said anything conciliatory to you, let her know. In any case, make sure she sees that what happened was not her fault. During times like these, some of us just do not behave like our normal rational selves. Though sad, this is inevitable while we try to find our way back to a more serene place.

All my clients seem to be struggling emotionally these days. Many appear dazed and distracted, others so needy and anxious that I hardly know how to respond. How can I help them return to normalcy? A forward-looking financial planner I know wrote a thoughtful letter to all her clients about the events of September 11. She began by empathizing with what many of them must feel, validating their feelings of vulnerability in a scary new world.

Her letter continued by calmly suggesting ways for these clients to cultivate a long-term perspective. She discussed her view of the financial marketplace in the near term and in the long run. By the closing paragraph, she had built a bridge from emotion to rationality, making it possible for her clients to communicate with her in a more balanced way.

Your own clients may be waiting for you to take the lead in discussing the future. This could be a good time to organize a client appreciation event or a "What Now?" financial seminar. By meeting in a group, clients can share their anxieties and ideas while being coached on ways to get through this difficult situation.

These are stressful times, indeed, so we all need to be much more aware of the messages we're sending and how we're delivering them. (Some journalists have suggested that our government needs more psychologists on board to advise on how best to communicate with an anxious public. I agree.)

Remind your clients and colleagues--and yourself--that learning to cope with constant stress is a long-term process, requiring creativity and as much supportive human contact as possible to counter the hopelessness and fear all around us. Self-nurturing practices are vital to shore up your inner resources, and proactive steps like volunteering can help make it easier to return to some semblance of normalcy. Unfortunately, what's normal now will probably never be the same as what was normal before September 11.

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