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.

"People in this state tend to behave in ways that are short-sighted. It's a very potent feeling," he said. "What happens in situations like this is that rational trading behavior goes out the window."

How to Cope

The best solution to psychologically weathering an uncertain market, psychological experts say, is to strive to maintain some sense of mental equilibrium -- a feat perhaps better achieved by those who have ridden out financial tempests in the past.

"Most important is what most people call cognitive restructuring," Johnson said. "Some individuals who have been through periods like this before are able to focus on all of the positive aspects of the job. These types of individuals tend to do better in this type of crisis."

Berns agreed that the approach has its merits. "Basically the idea is that you have to engage the conscious, rational part of your brain to make the emotional part shut up."

He said such a strategy might involve pulling out portfolio statements from last year and finding that you aren't poorer than you were a year ago. This, he said, will give a much better idea of your progress than a weekly or daily spot check.

"Don't look at it every day," he said. "Some people are obsessed with checking their portfolios. When you do that, all you're seeing is noise."

Gun-shy investors may do well to adhere to a few simple tips to maintain their mood, as well as their health, Lieberman said. This includes waiting at least 24 hours after a loss before making any new financial decisions, and realizing that money doesn't determine your self-worth.

And for those experiencing full-blown anxiety or mental breakdowns, seeking professional help -- rather than the kind that can be found at the bottom of a bottle -- may be the best course of action.

"One key is not to use alcohol or drugs to try and ride it out," Johnson said. "To use an American phrase, it is better to just roll with the punches."