From the December 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

December 1, 2004

What, Me Worry?

Everyone is anxious, sometimes

When people wish you a happy new year in the next few weeks, hang onto those good wishes: You may need them to steady your nerves. In a recent Yankelovich Partners poll reported in The Wall Street Journal, 42% of respondents said they worry more than they used to about what their lives will be like in the near future. Moreover, 29% of people now say they need something to calm their nerves, compared with 23% in 1999.

Anxiety may be an ever-present part of your daily consciousness these days, but it doesn't have to be. As you begin this new year, resolve to address sources of worry that are troubling you in your practice or your private life. Here are some ideas to reduce their debilitating effect.

Financial planning is my second career, and I'm having more difficulty building my practice than I expected. My wife and I are okay with reducing our spending, but I'm seriously worried about being able to afford college for our two teenagers. It's getting so bad that just hearing the word "college" makes me break out in a cold sweat. How can I handle this? When you are anxious about not measuring up to an ideal vision (yours or someone else's), it may be worthwhile to question whether that vision is realistic. In this case, if you have always assumed you would pay the whole tab for your children at private colleges, you may need to realign your expectations with economic reality.

I'm sure you realize that the vast majority of parents count on loans and grants to supplement their own college savings. This is not a catastrophic choice. In fact, some parents feel it's better not to foot the entire bill for college. They believe that if their children pay part or all of the cost, it will help them learn self-responsibility and value their education more highly.

You might also consider challenging the expectation that your college fund has to be fully charged up when the kids graduate from high school. In a remarkable lecture years ago on "Revolutionary Education," historian and author Howard Zinn suggested that many 18-year olds are not ready to apply themselves to the serious learning required of college students. He suggested that these young people might be better served if they worked a little first, and went to college later when they were truly motivated to learn.

I'm not suggesting that you tell your children to put off college, only that there are many paths to the same goal.

Do what you can to provide for them in the way you believe is best, without demanding the impossible of yourself. The more alternative scripts you can devise and share with your family, the less you will find yourself obsessively worrying about how this "must" happen.

Lately, my goal of life balance has been feeling like a pipe dream. I volunteer on two boards, coach my kids' soccer teams and help them with their homework, and end up answering client e-mails after my wife goes to bed. My stomach bothers me a lot, but my doctor can't find anything wrong. I feel like I'm on a treadmill. How can I get off? One of the hardest life lessons of all is learning one's limitations. It sounds to me like your gut is literally telling you that you've taken on too much. Where do your own needs fit into this busy schedule? When do you make time for rest and recuperation?

I think you first need to ask yourself if you are aiding and abetting your own overwork. Clients have told me of being grilled by their parents with questions like "What did you do today to justify your existence?" Perhaps similar voices from your past spur you to keep "doing" instead of recognizing the importance of just "being."

If you are truly committed to slowing down, you and your wife need to get together and strategize ways to lighten the load. I would suggest you start by examining your expectations. For example, is it really vital for you to serve on both of those boards? In terms of your relationship with your kids, how important is it to keep coaching their soccer teams? Could you budget your time at the office better to prevent work from spilling into your home life?

Then look at what you could do for yourself with the time you've freed up. What activities would help you express your creativity or restore your energies? Do you need to put exercise on your calendar, or set a regular bedtime to be sure of getting enough sleep?

I know how difficult it can be to juggle work, family, and community obligations. But by making time for self-care, you can be more fully present, energized, and fulfilled in all the responsibilities you decide to take on. In this more rested and happier state, your activities will begin to feel less like obligations and more like opportunities.

I used to admire the composure of one of my colleagues. She doesn't get upset when a client turns down a good plan, and crises never seem to faze her. Since I found out she's been on anti-anxiety medication, however, her lack of worry has begun to bother me. Isn't it natural for hard-working people to stress out occasionally? Is it good for clients that she's so easygoing? I know it's really none of my business, but I've begun to respect my colleague less because of this. Though some amount of anxiety is part of the human condition, I think your colleague's laid-back attitude may be a boon to clients who are fighting their own worries.

Such activities as meditation, biofeedback, yoga, and even acupuncture can help many people reduce anxiety on their own. Today, it's generally accepted that chemical imbalances leading to emotional distress can often be treated well with medication.

Having previously viewed drugs with skepticism myself, I now believe they are a perfectly viable way to deal with chronic or acute anxiety and depression, as long as they aren't used to mask serious issues that are better resolved through direct confrontation, psychotherapy, counseling, or coaching. In fact, research shows that in many cases a combination of therapy or therapeutic support and medication is more effective than either treatment alone.

So try to develop more tolerance toward your colleague's solution to her problem. You might even consider exploring ways to move toward more equanimity yourself.

My husband has been nagging me for some time to lose weight for my health. I do exercise some and try to eat sensibly, but all my life (I'm now 60) I've eaten to calm myself. Right now the going is especially tough, with anxiety about my father's failing health added to the struggle of replacing a planner who has left our practice. I've got to do something about my eating habits, but what? You've obviously recognized what a vicious cycle this has become for you: anxiety makes you eat, and eating makes you anxious.

First, let's tackle the latter half of that dilemma. You need to forgive yourself for using food as a palliative in times of stress. It's perfectly natural and common, and may be harmless if you stick to apples or carrots. Unfortunately, the high calorie count in today's prepared snack foods, along with the availability of super-sized portions, can make munching detrimental to one's health.

You've almost certainly been the diet route, probably with disappointing results. Besides making people feel deprived or rebellious, dieting often leads to yo-yo weight loss and gain cycles that are even more stressful for the body. I would urge you to replace the term "diet" with "eating plan." A good nutritionist can come up with a personalized long-term eating plan to suit your needs and tastes. I'd also highly recommend Overeaters Anonymous or Weight Watchers, where you will find a supportive group environment that has helped many people change their eating habits.

As for exercise, maybe you haven't yet found an activity you enjoy for its own sake. Don't just think of barbells and treadmills. How about dancing lessons, yoga, or swimming? Consider looking around for an exercise buddy to egg you on and help you stay focused on whatever activity you choose.

If you gently guide yourself into an eating plan and exercise plan suited to your personality and needs, I think you'll be able to turn your vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle.

After surviving a car accident that left her nerves in bad shape, another planner in our firm took up with a small group that combines nature worship and transcendental meditation with strict vegetarianism. She swears that this wacky regime reduces her anxiety and helps her handle stress, and she's constantly urging the rest of us to join her group. When I told her I wasn't interested, she said, "You mean you really enjoy worrying so much of the time?" I've been thinking about it since then, and maybe she's right! What's your take on this? New converts to a religion can really bug those who like their own way of life just fine.

Try to separate your dislike of this colleague's proselytizing from a condemnation of the solution that has worked well for her.

There's clearly something else going on with you, however. It's interesting that you reacted so strongly to her comment about your worrying so much. Maybe it's time you took an "anxiety inventory" to see if you can reduce some of your own fears.

As the first step, ask yourself what you worry about most. Potential errors in a client plan? Spending too little quality time with your kids? Brainstorm ways to lessen the anxieties that are within your control. Next, identify activities (or non-activities) that help you feel calm and relaxed, more trusting and more open, and try to integrate them regularly into your life.

In other words, you don't need to adopt your colleague's solution. In this three-step process, you can develop your own toolkit for reducing stress and anxiety.

From time to time, we all need to take an anxiety inventory, strategize ways to confront and transform these areas of concern, and figure out how best to reconnect with sources of calm and inner peace. Reconnection may come through exercise, meditation, therapy or coaching, medication, medical or alternative medical interventions, or a combination of these.

Whichever path of self-soothing you follow, try to arrive at a peaceful way of living that keeps excess anxiety from taxing your health and happiness. If you can succeed in managing anxiety well, you will be a model for clients who are facing similar challenges and look to you for wise solutions.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and consultant therapist, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor's Guide to Money Psychology, available through www.investmentadvisor.com. You can e-mail Olivia atom@moneyharmony.com.

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