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Your Client’s Brain: What Makes Us So Vulnerable to Stress?

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Below is the second of eight new articles by Olivia Mellan and Sherry Christie that continue the discussion on Your Client’s Brain that began with Investment Advisor’s February 2013 cover story—Double Think: Getting Past the Conflict in Your Clients’ Two Brainsand a feature article—Second Thoughts: Making Better Decisionsin the March 2013 issue of IA. 

In those articles, Mellan and Sherry shared the latest findings on the brain and suggested how that knowledge can be used by advisors to better understand their clients, and to help their clients make better decisions. 

Human brains are structured to react swiftly and forcefully to negative stimuli such as social aggression and other potential hazards. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson explained that this “negativity bias” dates back to caveman days, when we could take time contemplating such positive rewards as food and shelter, but had to react instantly to possible life-or-death threats. (This is also why we acquire strong dislikes more quickly than strong likes, Hanson noted.)

A certain amount of stress can make us more engaged and productive, as columnist Angie Herbers noted last July in “Stress for Success.” But when the level of stress passes a certain point, our performance starts to fall off. Trying to compensate by pushing ourselves and those around us merely increases the stress.

Aside from physical wear and tear, such constant fight-or-flight alertness can lead to pessimism, anxiety, irritability and feelings of helplessness or aversion. Eventually the overload may pop our emotional circuit-breakers, leading to alcohol or drug addiction, relationship problems or even a breakdown.

“Remember,” says Hanson, “the first, most primal emotion was fear. Our ancestors needed to eat luch, not be lunch.” Knowing that fear and the need for security trump everything else, an advisor should pay attention to clients’ anxiety and continually try to reduce their fears so they can think clearly.

Hanson’s advice for rebalancing the negativity bias:

  1. Look for positive facts and let them become positive experiences. You might consider some of the small pleasures of ordinary life, such as a modest achievement or a feeling of being appreciated, respected or fulfilled.
  2. Savor the positive experience for 10 to 30 seconds. Intensify it so you can feel it in your body and emotions.
  3. Sense this experience soaking into your brain and body. Let it register deeply in your emotional memory.


We invite you to visit the Your Client’s Brain landing page on AdvisorOne for additional archived and ongoing coverage of this important topic.