Market Turmoil a 'Great Depression' for Some

Periodic downturn. Market correction.

Choose what euphemism you will, but for those who lost significant chunks of their portfolios -- or their clients' holdings -- in the past weeks of market turmoil, the prevailing mental state can approach depression.

And while stocks and bonds may recover, the volatility will send some of those whose careers ride upon its crests and troughs into a dangerous tailspin of anxiety, anguish and possibly unhealthy coping behaviors.

"Certainly, in my practice I do see the impact of a downturn in the economy," said Dr. Carole Lieberman, Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author. "For example, patients' money woes cause or exacerbate marital problems, alcohol abuse, eating disorders -- even suicidal thoughts."

"The most important thing that happens is a period of immediate anxiety, often followed by depression," said Dr. Bankole Johnson, chair of the University of Virginia Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. "They often start to panic and find other ways of coping.

"It's almost a feeling as if they are under siege, as if there is no hope."

When Losses Come Home to Roost

The link between widespread financial troubles and psychological problems is well documented. The seminal example in the United States is the Great Depression, during which the suicide rate jumped from 14 to 17 per 100,000. More recent examples can be seen in the Asian market crises from earlier in the decade.

But while most may associate financial woes with psychological health impacts, the true effect of this stress can even manifest itself in physical ways; fatigue, extreme tiredness, headaches and muscle cramps are all possible signs.

"Individuals may become very fidgety, or have restless legs or difficulty sleeping," Johnson said. "This is all very problematic."

Some career investors may find it difficult to get back into the game.

"A downturn in financial markets most often causes a downturn in the mood and self-esteem of investors," Lieberman said. "Indeed, when financial indicators threaten to be harbingers of a 'great depression,' they can bring on a 'great depression' amongst those whose pockets -- and egos -- are most affected.

"The more a person determines his own self-worth by his net worth, the more he will be psychologically traumatized by any financial loss."

Even if investors are able to get back in the saddle, decision-making skills may be impacted by an especially bumpy ride on the market.

Dr. Greg Berns is a specialist in neuroeconomics in the Emory University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

"The basic idea is that we use technology, primarily brain imaging, to try and understand how people make decisions," he said.

What he often finds is that when confronted by a potential source of stress -- a sudden market downturn, for example -- the brain becomes more prone to make decisions that go against what most economists would suggest.

"What we do know is that when people get excited, they enter a physical state in which the body is amped up," he said. "When we get in that state, the emotional decision-making centers in the brain come alive and overpower the cortex centers, or the rational part."

The net effect is an almost irresistible urge to do something -- whether or not it's the wisest course of action.

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