Adversity, Worry and Resilience: A Psychologist's Observations on the Financial Crisis and the Global Economy

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Jay Cherney, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, consultant, speaker and mediator. His current work offers him an intimate view of a wide range of people grappling with the seismic shift in the global economy. "In my private clinical practice over 25 years I've specialized in anxiety disorders. Most of the people who sit on my couch are middle or upper middle class professionals with panic attacks, chronic worry and depression," said Cherney.

Jay Cherney, Ph.D

To prevent or break out of this debilitating cycle involves applying some form of the serenity prayer

Jay Cherney, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, consultant, speaker and mediator. His current work offers him an intimate view of a wide range of people grappling with the seismic shift in the global economy.

"In my private clinical practice over 25 years I've specialized in anxiety disorders. Most of the people who sit on my couch are middle or upper middle class professionals with panic attacks, chronic worry and depression," said Cherney. "During the past year I have also been a co-founder and the facilitator of Wealth 360, a Philadelphia area peer learning group for successful entrepreneurs. Wealth 360 provides a supportive forum for navigating the challenges and opportunities facing today's families with wealth.    

"The responses of these two groups are more similar than different," Cherney said. "Big financial losses trigger fear and insecurity in everyone. The deep uncertainty about the immediate future breeds a sense of isolation. We had a regular, full-day meeting of Wealth 360 on September 15, and watched the market nosedive begin. In our post 9/15 world, members have pulled together with additional meetings and conference calls. They have used the core power of the group -- the collective wisdom gathered from multiple perspectives -- to make decisions in the increasingly murky financial landscape. The group has reflected that there's no clear guidance from financial 'experts,' which actually brings a sort of relief. Since no one really knows how to navigate completely uncharted waters, there's no shame in not knowing, and comfort in admitting this vulnerability in a supportive and safe place. Gallows humor has helped lighten the growing sense of doom and aloneness - 'Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one spending time in the fetal position.'"

Cherney's work with Wealth 360 has led him to explore the relatively new field of behavioral economics, the study of how emotions often lead people to make choices against their best interests.

"One interesting finding, is that humans are wired to react with twice the emotional intensity to a loss than to an equal gain," noted Cherney. "This 'loss aversion' can lead investors to sell winning stocks too quickly and keep losing stocks too long. Fear of loss is surely driving the panicky market. With deep uncertainty about our financial future everyone wants to know what to do to regain control and bolster security. This is where the distinction between problem solving and worry becomes important.

"Examining the financial landscape to discover useful steps is what Wealth 360 members are doing," Cherney explained. "Yet the current situation is so uncertain that there's simply not enough information to make good decisions. Such conditions can trigger a slide from problem solving into worry -- a repetitive analysis that cannot lead to solutions. My anxious clinical clients get drawn into the habit of spinning their wheels over things they can't control, which creates deeper sense of helplessness (and exhaustion), which in turn fuels more worry. Given the huge dark cloud of the global crisis, we're all susceptible to slipping into the worry trap.

"To prevent or break out of this debilitating cycle involves applying some form of the serenity prayer," suggested Cherney. "First, separate what you actually have influence over from what is outside your control. Take actions that will help solve problems, and let the rest go -- stop wasting energy on what you can't control. This plan is, of course, easier to describe than to apply day to day. Our deep wish for control drives the worry cycle and people convince themselves that worry actually adds to control. Yet worry never pays off. It drains the body, mind and soul. The origin of the word is from Middle English, "to strangle".

"Our worrisome climate of doom and unparalleled financial uncertainty is a tremendous challenge," Cherney added. "It calls for resilience, the ability to bounce back when adversity blocks our way. An important element of resilience is a balance between flexibility and firmness -- bending without breaking. We need the agility to shift course quickly as conditions change. Yet we also need persistence to keep moving toward our goals, not letting detours, worry or a sense of helplessness to sap our motivation. With both clinical clients and Wealth 360 I'll be facilitating greater clarity about the personal strengths -- attitudes, strategies and supports -- that have succeeded in past crises. We'll then create ways to leverage these personal resources to move forward."

"A key element in resilience is to use core values as a lighthouse, a constant guiding presence for important decisions," said Cherney "Clarity and re-commitment to what matters most in the big picture keeps us energized with purpose and meaning. Using our personal strengths in the service of these highest aspirations is the best way I know to bring out our best and build a sense of control and satisfaction."

A visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan brought this idea home to Cherney in a deeply personal way. He toured an apartment restored to its condition a century ago. In three crammed rooms, a Jewish family lived, operated a garment factory seven days a week and brought six children into the world.

"This was my grandparent's world," Cherney said. "They came to America seeking streets of gold, or at least a better, more secure existence, and had to struggle just to survive. The hope of a better life -- if not now than for their children -- must have been a powerful sustaining force. Two generations later this I have fulfilled their dream -- perhaps even surpassed it. We could not be so prosperous without their determined struggle, their model of purposefulness."

"With our powerful, emotional reactions to loss, we can easily fall into the trap of focusing more on what we've lost than what we still have," said Cherney. "As a country we've managed to rise above many periods of overwhelming adversity. Our history of toughness predicts that we'll again marshal our resources to see ourselves through this crisis. And hopefully along the way we'll learn how to run our financial systems and relationships more effectively. Perhaps we'll even learn to curb our tendency toward greed - that's a really tough one."

"While we all feel isolated and fearful with our prosperity under siege, the crisis demonstrates how closely connected we really are. We'll move through this challenge best by staying connected to mutual support and re-committing to our highest passions and purpose," Cherney concluded. "And some positive change will emerge. As an Ernest Hemingway character said in 'A Farewell to Arms,' 'the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.'"

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