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Coping with Portfolio Panic


How investors—and besieged financial planners—are coping with portfolio pain

They used to bring concerns about their children or their marriages. But increasingly parishioners are also telling Glen VanderKloot, a Lutheran minister in Springfield, Ill., about their financial worries, and that puts him in the unusual position of dispensing investment advice. Sometimes he quotes scripture—"I will not be shaken"—and sometimes Warren Buffett. Explains VanderKloot: "He says now is the time to buy."

It's hard to stay calm in the face of the market's volatility and the constant drumbeat of recession, unemployment, bills to pay, and bailouts. A recent American Psychological Assn. survey found that 8 out of 10 Americans cite money and the economy as their top sources of stress. These worries are taking a physical and psychological toll, and people are dealing with them in ways ranging from the self-improving (more exercise) to the soporific (late-night viewings of Judge Judy).

Doctors see recession anxiety in many forms. Manhattan dentist Kenneth Berger says he's treating more patients for stress-related teeth grinding, while periodontist Neal Lehrman has noticed an increased number of Wall Streeters inadvertently channeling aggression through their toothbrushes to their gums. For Serena Ehrlich, 39, of Santa Monica, Calif., the challenge of launching her document database company, Docstoc, in a recession while caring for aging parents has led to a painful bout of ulcerative colitis after four years of remission. "If this economy doesn't get better, my guts are going to kill me," Ehrlich says.

Likewise, since the subprime crisis hit last summer, Thomas, a managing director at a financial services giant who prefers that his last name not be used, has lost his appetite—and with it, 30 pounds from his already lanky frame. To combat his increased stress, he's running 30 to 40 miles a week and training for marathons. Still, he's grinding his teeth, battling insomnia and anxiety attacks, and fighting with his spouse about finances.

Money matters are a source of conflict for couples even in the best of times. With the market meltdown, tensions have amped up even further. Kathleen Gurney, a Sarasota (Fla.) psychologist who counsels patients about money, has a client in her late 40s who is fighting with her husband because she wants to sell their stocks and put the money in cash. She anxiously watches financial news all day while her spouse works late to avoid the constant arguing. Gurney advised the woman to turn off the TV and take an investing class at a community college. "I told her to familiarize herself with the language of investing so she'll feel like she has more control," Gurney says. "Then maybe there's a place they can compromise."

Indeed, many doctors and counselors say activities that distract from your problems and restore self-confidence are the best way to fight stress. That approach has worked for Tobias Levkovich, chief equity strategist at Citigroup (C), whose psyche has been damaged by layoffs and what he describes as "the crushing weight of wealth lost in the equity markets." He recommended financial stocks in 2008. No wonder he gained 30 pounds eating barbecued potato chips, fried foods, and other junk late at night. Instead of rushing into a crash diet, though, Levkovich, 47, got motivated by asking Citigroup colleagues to sponsor a Biggest Loser-style contest last fall. In the dollar-per-pound challenge, he lost 27 pounds while raising $17,000 for the Food Bank for New York City. He has since dropped an additional 13 pounds.

Distracting the mind can also help the many people whose stress manifests in sleep-related issues. Karen Hochman obsesses over everything from meeting payroll and paying taxes to business development at her New York City specialty food Webzine The Nibble. "I don't stress out during the day because I work 15 to 18 hours and have no time to unravel," says Hochman, who is "fortysomething." But she wakes up at 3 a.m., her mind racing. The only thing that can lull her back to sleep is the absurdity of the TV show Judge Judy, which she records. "Even though so many of the charges and defenses are beyond reason and the people lie through their teeth, there is still a voice of sanity at the front of the courtroom," Hochman says. "At least justice prevails, in small doses, on TV. There is order in the universe, and I can sleep again."

Young is a Personal Business editor for BusinessWeek . Palmeri is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau.

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