With the world bedeviled by random acts of terror, it’s ironic to be approaching a time of year when we normally look forward to being scared. Halloween ghoulies and ghosts aside, there’s a lot to learn from people’s attitudes toward what truly frightens them. Whether fear is thrilling and energizing, or paralyzes a person with nameless dread, can depend not only on its cause and intensity but also on that individual’s own personality (and perhaps his or her gender).
When clients are grappling with fears that exceed their tolerance level, you may be able to help them calm down and deal with their hobgoblins in a more rational way. Here, for example, are ideas on how to handle a number of scary situations.
Q: My newly retired client planned to travel extensively in Europe and Asia. But after the experience of a friend who was in the U.K. when the bombs-on-planes plot was foiled, she is now terrified to set foot on a transatlantic flight. She also dreads taking buses and subways in New York, where her children live. She has even asked me how much cash to hide in her house in case of a terrorist attack. This lady needs help, but where do I begin?
A: First, it’s important to know that there are different levels of fear. The most intense is panic, where people freeze and become incapable of taking rational action. They stop breathing normally and their cognitive thinking processes begin to shut down.
A less extreme level of fear generates the fight-or-flight response we have all experienced. We either run away from the source of our fear, or find the courage to confront it and hopefully to vanquish it.
A third level of fear results in butterflies in the stomach. Unlike the other two, this can feel like almost pleasurable anticipation, such as when you are waiting to accept an award or are a public speaker about to address an audience.
In your case, your client is caught between paralyzing panic and a desire to flee. Give her a sympathetic ear to express her fears. As you listen, encourage her to consciously take deeper, slower breaths. This kind of breathing leads to physical and emotional relaxation.
Once you have helped her get more in touch with her body and a fuller range of thoughts and feelings, she may be willing to reconsider more calmly her fear of traveling. Discuss with her the things that will be under her control, such as where she goes and how she spends her time.
You may also be able to guide her in revisiting other times in her life when she was intensely afraid. Did she succeed in mastering her fear? If so, how did she do it? What worked best for her? Did whatever she feared really materialize?
Urge your client to learn more about new measures to improve security on planes and other public transportation. On a rational level, it may help her to know that these modes of travel are statistically much safer than driving.
In the longer run, as she learns to understand her own fear reactions, she can make better judgments about which sources of alarm to avoid and which to resolutely confront.
Q: A colleague at my planning firm is experiencing serious physical symptoms–dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pains–but he refuses to see a doctor. When I pressed him about it, I got the impression that he is terrified of being told something is seriously wrong with him. How can I help him get over his unwillingness to act?
A: Your colleague’s method of dealing with the scary prospect of a life-threatening problem is total denial and avoidance. If you truly want to help him, take time to draw him out about his fears. Did he have a relative or friend who died prematurely of a heart attack, or became an invalid because of heart problems?
If he opens up to you, remind him gently that there are two possibilities: either he needs medical help, or he is worrying about nothing. In the first case, you can point out that advances in medicine have made heart disease less of a threat than before. If he has a family, you can buttress your argument by asking if he really wants to risk abandoning them by avoiding treatment that could save his life. On the other hand, if nothing is seriously wrong with him, he will have the relief of putting his anxieties to rest.
As a friend, you might even offer to accompany him to the doctor. With your support and encouragement, I wager you’ll be able to help him move from panicky avoidance to confront the source of his fears.
Q: A client of mine is reluctantly retiring from his business to let his son take over. Despite having a more than adequate retirement portfolio, he recently confessed to me that without the daily challenge of his life’s work, he may simply drop dead. This appears to be an intense fear of his. What can I say to help change his attitude?
A: Men–and in recent years, quite a few women–often have to overcome the psychic hurdle of overidentifying themselves with their work. The shock of losing a defining job is much like what happens to women who overidentify themselves with child-rearing, once their kids grow up and leave. In both cases, these individuals need to embrace a more multifaceted image of who they are and what they contribute to others around them.
You can begin by listening to your retirement-phobic client with compassion. Remind him that he is not the first to have an irrational fear of dying of emptiness or lack of purpose. However, there’s a great deal he can do to keep his golden years from becoming an echoing wasteland.
First, there are bound to be struggling entrepreneurs or students who need his knowledge and expertise. Urge him to check with nearby universities or Small Business Development Corporations. Is there a charitable cause that speaks to him, maybe a child literacy program or college fundraising effort that needs a leader? Is there a business concept or field of interest he’s always wanted to explore, a “road not taken” at some earlier stage of his life? In other words, he doesn’t have to stop working. These days, a growing proportion of older Americans are remaining longer in the workforce (see “Still Working” sidebar below).
By helping your client identify new challenges, you will make it possible for him to welcome this new phase of life without feeling that he might as well give up and write his obituary now.