Managing Anxiety in Uncertain Economic Times

By Rebecca Nerison

Scary financial news is everywhere we look these days. Layoffs, bankruptcies, foreclosures, portfolio devaluations—-there’s a lot to worry about if we let ourselves. Fear can be a friend or foe. Fear is a friend when it motivates us to “right action,” such as building up savings, deferring unnecessary expenditures, getting bills out timely, and generally taking care of business.

Fear becomes a foe when we get caught up in mental loops of worry over things we cannot control. Fear can cause us to do things we wouldn’t do if we were calm and thinking clearly. (Consider some of the mistakes your clients have made that resulted in difficulties.) Fear can cause avoidance and, in large enough doses, paralysis.

The consequences of such paralysis can be especially dire for solos or small firm lawyers, who practice with a much smaller safety net than those working in government or larger firm settings. There is no one to cover for these lawyers or prod them into needed action. And inaction, of course, can lead to bar complaints.

Managing our tendency to worry is important now more than ever. Among the many anxiety management techniques available, we offer the following seven. Thanks to Eckhart Tolle and his books Practicing the Power of Now (Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 1999) and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose ( New York: Plume, 2006) for many of these ideas.

1. Distinguish between “legitimate” fear and psychological anxiety. Fear is a signal that something is wrong or that we are in danger. It’s our reaction to smelling smoke—there’s a fire we need to locate and extinguish. Something needs our attention. We need to take action. If we ignore our fear when it is legitimate, bad things can happen.

These difficult economic times may be sparking legitimate fear if your financial situation needs attention. Your overhead may be higher than you can afford. Perhaps you haven’t been spending enough time developing referral sources. You haven’t been saving when you could have.

If fear is a legitimate response to something that needs your attention, take appropriate action. Face the situation squarely, devise a plan, and do what you need to do. If there’s nothing you can do (which is rarely the case), you can accept the situation as it is, including any consequences that may accrue. Acceptance will eliminate fear and allow peace of mind.

Psychological anxiety differs from fear in that it is not a response to an identifiable threat. It is by definition diffuse and vague and is usually focused on something bad that might happen in the future.

Anxiety distracts your attention from the present and focuses you on an imagined future that is undesirable. It all occurs between your ears. It isn’t real. It robs you of enjoyment. And it tends to be habitual in many people. Anxiety will not help you weather the storm. Action or acceptance will.

2. Focus attention on what is in your control instead of what isn’t. Start with attention itself. Are you controlling your thoughts or are they controlling you? With practice, you can learn to contain thoughts that make you anxious instead of allowing them to run amok.

When we focus our attention on vague, unmanageable forces such as “the economy,” we tend to feel small, scared, and impotent. So why focus on the declining stock market or housing prices or rising unemployment rates? Unless you have the power to reverse these forces—or take advantage of them—focusing on them is likely to make you feel more anxious, not less.

Instead, think about your practice. What do you need to do today? What case or client needs your attention? How current are your billings? How’s your marketing? How connected are you to colleagues and referral sources? These are activities firmly within your control. Focus your attention on them.

Many things in life are, frankly, outside your control. You can let this fact lead to a panic attack, or you can calmly accept it. One advantage of owning your own firm is that you can control (i.e., manage) things such as overhead, fees, and the clients you take on. Making a list of practice factors in your control may help you stay calm.

Doing what you can is a powerful antidote to fear and helplessness. If you ignore the things that you could do to improve your situation, you are losing precious opportunities. As you patiently and consistently attend to what is in your control, you build a sense of efficacy and competence.

3. Accept the fact that many aspects of the global economy are a mess right now. Don’t waste energy thinking they “should” be different than they are. When things don’t go as we’d like, we tend to rail against the universe, politicians, or the guy next door. We want to blame someone. We want someone to take responsibility and make things right.

Well. This is human nature. And it’s probably the most unproductive attitude you can adopt.

When we get angry about a situation, we add insult (psychological distress) to injury (the pain of the situation itself). We create inner conflict that doesn’t need to be there. We create suffering for ourselves and for those around us.

If you can change a situation, by all means take action. If you can’t change the situation, accept it. Don’t waste your time and energy wishing things were different. The classic “Serenity Prayer” expresses this beautifully—serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

So the next time you catch yourself getting angry or anxious about government policies or budget deficits, take a look at your own policies and balance sheets. Are they in good order? Could they be modified to serve you or your clients better? Are you running your personal and business economies the way you’d like to see larger entities running theirs? If not, get busy! And if you have developed great business practices, can you help your colleagues who haven’t?

4. Keep yourself in the present; you can’t cope with the future. This is one of the most powerful anxiety management tools there is. It’s also the most difficult. Why? Because most of us habitually hang out in the past or the future.

When we dwell on past events that caused unhappiness, we feel increasingly depressed, angry, or resentful. And when we project into the future and foresee scary things happening, we feel anxious.

Notice that we are creating these emotions between our ears. What happens when we stop playing mental movies of despair or gloom and focus attention on what’s in front of us right now? We feel calmer. We find energy and focus to do what we can. We create a more positive future by taking care of what’s in front of us—now.

For the solo or small firm lawyer, staying in the present can be particularly challenging. Because you run your own business, you really have three jobs: providing legal services, managing your office, and marketing your services. You need to have at least part of your brain power planning your time if you are going to succeed at all three aspects of your business. Planning, of course, requires looking into the future and estimating allocations of time.

Planning is a practical and necessary use of your mind. We get into trouble only when we dwell in the future rather than doing things that need to be done. If you find yourself feeling frequent anxiety, monitor how much time you spend in the imaginary future.

5. Limit your media exposure. If tracking the stock market throughout the day makes you anxious, check twice a day instead of ten times. If reading financial news gets you down, read less. If listening to news programs makes you angry or depressed, turn them off.

“But I’ll lose touch with what’s going on!” you protest. I don’t think so. There’s a big difference between being informed and being immersed—or obsessed.

In this age of instant information, we are in danger of drowning in negativity. The obvious solution to too much is—less. Media exposure is in your control. Exercise that control, especially if you tend to worry or obsess about events outside your control.

6. Eschew negativity. Studies show that it’s more important to avoid pessimism than it is to boost optimism. Besides the media, there’s another kind of exposure to beware: people who take a perverse pleasure in forecasting doom and gloom. How do you feel when you are with these people? Do the conversations motivate you to get back to the office and take care of business, or do they make you want to hide under your desk?

Negative people need an audience. If being around them gets you down or raises your anxiety level, choose other companions or limit time spent with them. It’s a free country—you get to decide. Practicing law can be negative enough without adding unnecessary pain to it.

In addition to people “out there,” watch your own inner Eeyore. Guard against unnecessary negativity. It’s a cancer that spreads.

It’s not the events in life that make us happy or unhappy—it’s how we interpret those events. If adopting an optimistic attitude is not doable, try for neutral. Tell yourself the truth. For example, “Things are looking scary right now. And, no matter what happens, chances are I’m going to be okay.” Because chances are, you will be.

Think about the financial crash of the late 1920s that ushered in the Great Depression. Many people suffered huge losses. How did they respond? Some interpreted loss as catastrophic. They couldn’t tolerate the pain, perceived that their situations were hopeless, and subsequently jumped out of tall buildings. Others acknowledged their losses, weighed their options, and got busy surviving. Most did not die of starvation or exposure. They rallied their resources and did what they could, one step at a time. One day at a time. Most survived.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address said it best (italics mine):

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself— nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Roosevelt was right. We revived. We prospered. We probably will again. His words encourage us to avoid becoming victims of “irrational despondence.”

7. Take time to focus on things that have little to do with financial concerns, such as relationships, beauty, spirituality, and meaning. This concept can be difficult for solos. A law practice tends to be a consuming thing. Those three roles we touched on earlier can use up all your available time and then some.

However, working all the time exacts its price, as does a singular focus on money. You become unbalanced, grumpy, one-dimensional. You lose perspective and forget why you chose this path in the first place.

Fortunately, the best things in life truly are free. While healthy finances are important, there’s a lot more to living a rich, meaningful life. Roosevelt commented on this point later in his 1933 inaugural speech:

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Let’s all do our part in creating a world that works. The first step is to manage our practices and our anxieties as best we can. That may not sound like a powerful intervention, but it’s an enormous gift to ourselves and everyone around us.

  • Rebecca Nerison, PhD, is a psychologist with the Washington State Bar Association Lawyers Assistance Program. She may be reached at 206/727-8269 or

    Copyright 2009

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