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How Advisors Can Cope With 2020, the ‘Year of Anxiety’

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The coronavirus pandemic has taken a severe toll on Americans’ emotional well-being. That’s why psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert, in an interview with ThinkAdvisor, calls 2020 “The Year of Anxiety.”

The core of anxiety is uncertainty — and there’s plenty to feel uncertain about, chiefly, the “double-whammy” of the virus and the upcoming presidential election, says Alpert, known as “The Wall Street Therapist.” In private practice, with offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, his clients include financial advisors, traders, analysts and bankers.

In Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Tracking Poll of May 2020, 39% of U.S. adults reported that coronavirus-related stress and worry has affected their mental health.

As for financial advisors, they and others are feeling higher anxiety amid the pandemic, because of the isolation aspect, than during the 2007-2008 financial crisis, Alpert argues.

During and after that meltdown, many Wall Street FAs and others in financial services resorted to drugs and massage parlors to cope with anxiety.

Now, amid the social isolation that COVID-19 has imposed and the wide range of businesses in lock-down, those activities have been curtailed, according to Alpert, who wrote “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days,” co-authored with Alisa Bowman (Center Street-2019 paperback).

In the interview, Alpert highlights a few pandemic positives he’s sussed out and provides tips on how to keep anxiety under control.

The trainer and performance coach numbers among his corporate clients Liberty Mutual Insurance and Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

ThinkAdvisor interviewed Alpert, speaking by phone from New York City, on Wednesday, July 22. While he labels 2020 “The Year of Anxiety,” in Chinese astrology 2020 is “The Year of the Rat.” The last Chinese Rat year was 2008. Make of this coincidence what you will.

Here are excerpts from our interview:

THINKADVISOR: What have been the pandemic’s psychological effects so far?

JONATHAN ALPERT: The pandemic has taken a huge toll on people psychologically: 2020 is The Year of Anxiety. Medical doctors will tell you that prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications have increased.

What’s causing the anxiety?

Uncertainty underlies anxiety, and that’s what we’re faced with right now. We’ve spanned three seasons with coronavirus: The pandemic began in the winter and went through spring. Here we are in summer, and it will probably go until fall.

Is the virus the worst uncertainty that the stock market is grappling with?

Even without the coronavirus, we’d be facing uncertainty because of the upcoming [presidential] election. But now we’ve got a kind of double-whammy: coronavirus and the election. I think the election is creating huge anxiety in the market. People are unsure of what a Biden administration would mean. Also, racial tension and “cancel culture” are causing a lot of the anxiety, too.

How is the pandemic impacting financial advisors’ emotional health?

Like the rest of the population at large, advisors are stressed and anxious about what the future holds. And now, after working from home for months, they’re anxious about what their return to the office will look like. For a lot of people, there’s uncertainty too about what’s happening with schools. They’re trying to figure out that if they have to go back to [their company’s office] to work, what will that mean for their child [care]. At the same time, though, advisors have been a voice of reason for clients and feel good that they’re able to educate them.

What’s the primary complaint of your FA clients right now?

Generalized anxiety, anxiety related to coronavirus, difficulty dealing with the isolation. With younger people, coronavirus has impacted their dating lives: They aren’t able to go out, date or meet new people. But in some ways, I think the pandemic forces [men and women] to get to know [someone new] differently and perhaps better before they head out to meet them and possibly jump into bed.

During the financial crisis and later, you noted that financial advisors were using pill-popping, marijuana and cocaine as coping mechanisms. Is that still the case amid the pandemic?

People are more stressed out now in many ways than they were in the financial crisis. A big difference is that they’re in isolation: They don’t have the social outlets they used to have, like going to a bar or having dinner with friends. They’re not partying like they used to: Night life is almost nonexistent. So the pandemic has pretty much cut out the party scene and drug use.

Advisors had been frequenting massage parlors — part of Wall Street culture, as you told me in previous interviews. But because of the pandemic, these places were closed for months. So has that habit been virtually eliminated, too?

A couple of weeks ago [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo said that personal-care services like nail salons and massage therapists could reopen. The poor sex workers have been out of work for so long! I’m sure that industry will be hurt.

Are the controversies around President Trump a source of anxiety, too?

People look to the president for leadership, and half the country doesn’t feel that they’re getting it. He seems to have changed his tune about wearing a mask, though; so he’s seeming a little more compliant — but Trump knows how to make a headline when he wants to.

Can any positives be found in the coronavirus pandemic?

In some ways people’s lives have improved insofar as they don’t have to commute to work. And for some, relationships with their spouses have become better because they’re able to spend more time together. However, with spouses spending 24/7 with each other, other relationships have worsened.

Financial advisors are holding virtual meetings with clients. Are these helpful to the client-FA relationship?

The downside is that there’s a lack of human connection. Those meetings aren’t too different from [the way I use them in] my business — it’s a time-saver because clients don’t have to come into my office. However, [online meetings] make it easier for them and me to get distracted. There are some people who absolutely need in-person meetings, and I’m sure that’s the same in financial services.

Any advice about participating in virtual meetings?

Get up, stretch, give yourself a break from the screen just to rest your eyes and your mind. Some people are having meetings outdoors on FaceTime or Zoom. That can work.

People’s sleep has been disrupted by the pandemic. Do you have tips on how to get more of it? 

Sleep has been disturbed largely because people are home 24 hours a day and don’t have a separation from work. Some are working from bed. Do not work from your bed! I recommend to a lot of my clients that they bookend their day to create buffers by taking walks before and after work. Most don’t realize it, but the typical commute helps people set up their day; and the commute home helps them process and unwind from the day. They don’t have that working from home. So they need to create it.

Any other ideas to help control fear and anxiety?

Have a separate space in your house or apartment just for work. Clearly define your work hours, especially if you live with others — you’ll be more organized and less distracted. Make sure you take a lunch break — but not at your desk.

Anything else for keeping calm and carrying on?

Social media is probably hurting more than helping. So limit your exposure. There’s a whole lot of fiction [posing as fact] on social media, which is fueled by anxiety. The anxious mind attempts to create information to bring predictability to an unpredictable situation. But that just creates panic.

And one last tip?

Think ahead: What steps would you take if you tested positive for coronavirus? Have a plan in place. By playing this out in your mind, you’ll feel better equipped to handle potential illness.

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