Managing Stress During Market Downturns

Beverly Flaxington

Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.

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Dear Bev,

I recently saw an interview in which you discussed the importance of managing our self-talk. With market movements being mostly negative, I’m riddled with anxiety and stress. I dread every phone call with a client. I can talk objectively about a long-term investment approach, but it doesn’t mean that I find the situation to be stress-free. I’m not drinking or taking drugs, but I am losing sleep every night. I hate Mondays now, though I used to love my job. I don’t want to look at some client portfolios when I know they need the money sooner rather than later. I know I can’t control the market, and I realize that the downs are not attributable to my expertise (or lack thereof), but I can’t help feeling responsible and stressed. I don’t talk about it with my team, but my wife knows. She worries about my health. Is there anything I can do to alleviate this anxiety? I can’t ignore the markets; I have a job to do.


Dear K.T.,

I appreciate your honesty and I hear the pain in your question, so I won’t give you the pat answer and say, “Don’t worry – this too shall pass.” Stress is a very real issue for advisors (and clients) especially during these down markets. It is so important to manage stress so that -- no matter whether the market goes down or jumps up -- your emotional state is not tied to it. It actually is possible to stay neutral and even-keel no matter what the market does, but it takes practice.

We have all learned behavior that is more anxiety inducing than calming, so we have to learn new approaches and be committed to practicing them. I’d rather see you practice when the stakes are not quite so high and your anxiety isn’t either, but there is no time like the present. Here are some tips to try. Commit to at least one and do it each and every day.

  1. Note your triggers to stressful events. We all have ways we respond negatively either physically or emotionally. You have mentioned not sleeping, so that’s one for you but that’s probably after you have already had a high state of tension. Watch for the early signs – we get signals early on that something is wrong, like a small headache that starts or gritting of teeth or losing our temper when something isn’t that big of a deal. Notice the triggers, so you can immediately address them when the warning signs start.
  1. Prepare positive self-talk. When we are anxious, we tend to talk to ourselves in very negative terms. For example, “I’m responsible for my client’s retirement, and their lives will be ruined by these market downturns.” Catch the negative self-talk and replace it with something more objective like, “One of the hard aspects of this career is that the markets won’t always cooperate. We’ve been through it before, and it will happen again. I need to stay focused and communicate well.” Write down whatever words work for you and keep referring to these notes as many times as you need to.
  1. Get some physical exercise. If you don’t already go to the gym, take walks, engage in sports or otherwise move your body regularly, do it now. I don’t need to tell you the benefit of those endorphins. It’s a natural high, so take advantage of it!
  1. Focus on getting enough sleep. You’ve said you are struggling to sleep well – look into some natural remedies like melatonin, soothing music, Moon Drops or Simply Sleep. Read something positive and uplifting before you go to bed so that your mind is filled with positive and beneficial ideas.
  1. Surround yourself with positive people. Don’t find the folks in our industry who will proclaim the doom and gloom. Yes, you want to consult with experts about trends and economic indicators, of course, but don’t choose lunch mates who want to talk about how much money they are losing for their clients. You can only do what you can do, so stay focused on doing it. Don’t waste so much mental and emotional energy on worrying; just work to do what you can to make your clients’ situation as strong as possible.

There are many other approaches that could work well. If advisors reading this have something else to share, please write and tell us about it.