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Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.
Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.

Does the World Have Financial PTSD?

FDR: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

When FDR said: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," he was right. PTSD is the fear following an intial trauma -- that caused you to feel vulnerable -- of retraumatization, that you're afraid will finish the job and destroy you.

You listen to the stock market reports as if rubber necking a car accident. And when you hear about that 500+ and then 600+ point drop in the Dow, you're not merely disappointed, you feel a kick in the stomach and get nauseated or light headed. Your boss reassures you that there will not be any more layoffs, but his voice seems tentative. Nauseated and light-headed again. You're speaking less and less to people around you. You've lost your sense of humor. Even if you're a calm person, you have to struggle with your own road rage if someone cuts you off in traffic. Your drinking is up. And as far as dieting, exercising, taking care of yourself or having a healthy happy sex life? Forgetaboutit.

If many of the following signs and symptoms hold true, there's a good chance that you have Financial PTSD.

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
  • Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)
  • Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)

PTSD symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general
  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
  • Sense of a limited future (you don't expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)

PTSD symptoms of increased arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilance (on constant "red alert")
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled

Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Anger and irritability
  • Guilt, shame or self-blame
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Feeling alienated and alone
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain

What's going on that may be causing Financial PTSD?

You are continually being traumatized and re-traumatized, can't get your footing and instead of becoming stronger, you're becoming more anxious. That is because of the 4 D's of Financial PTSD: Debt, Dependency, Distrust, Denial.

  1. Debt - When you are continuing to be in debt or are going deeper into it, every time a creditor calls, it rubs your face not only in how vulnerable you, but that people are out to get something from you that you don't have to give. Not knowing who will call next or how they have been trained to coax/intimidate you keeps you in a state of the increased arousal described above.
  2. Dependency - When you feel out of control and are feeling desperate, you turn to others to intervene, take care of the situation and restore a feeling of the situation being under control.
  3. Distrust - When who you are depending on to restore control do not seem to be in control themselves or flip flop or even worse seem to be serving their own needs at the expense of yours, that can throw you into an even greater state of vulnerability and hypervigilence.
  4. Denial - Denial is not always a bad thing. Without it, you couldn't function. For instance, if you were hyperaware and hypervigilant regarding all the dangers in the world from driving your car, to crossing the street, to eating food that might have contaminants in it, to taking medications that have many side effects, etc. you would become frozen. When you are aware of being dependent on others that you cannot trust and you can't tune it out, i.e. when your healthy denial mechanisms are not working, you are more vulnerable to feeling that you will be re-traumatized and then you will fall apart.

What can you do?

Anything that gives you a sense of control and community will help.

To center yourself you might do well to heed and follow the famed Serenity Prayer (so embedded in the fabric of 12-step programs): "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." Trite as that may sound, it has stood the test of time as a way of revealing a deep truth about control to you and to allowing you to turn to faith and or something referred to as a "higher power" (for those of you who are not religious). At the very least, saying it and leaning into it when you do, may enable you to take a few slow deep breaths and e-x-h-a-l-e, which is always a great centering device when you're feeling stressed.

Next, realize that knowledge is not just power; it also helps gives you control over anxiety. To that end you could start to take a Financial Literacy (see resources below) course to better understand money and finances. That way you won't feel so dependent on and vulnerable with institutions you may have trouble trusting at this point.

Want something more practical and tactical?

Try the following:

  1. Each day when you wake up say to yourself and write down the answer to: "What do I need to get done today (or the next week), to center myself and gain more control of my financial life?"
  2. Then think, "Who can I call today and what specifically should I ask them and why that (you don't want to overwhelm them with your anxiety) to help me center myself and gain more control of my financial life?"
  3. Then "Just Schedule It." Either for today or the next few days, because you haven't made a commitment until you've scheduled it and you haven't kept a commitment until you've checked it off after you have done it.

Regarding tapping into your community, you can seek the same treatment that soldiers with PTSD or rape victims (and doesn't a part of you feel raped by the economic events of the past couple years?) including support groups, seeking out a therapist or psychiatrist.


About the Author
Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.

Mark Goulston, M.D., the author of the book Just Listen, is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

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