Bar Bulletin

April, 2003

The LAP Zone

Coping with Financial Stress in Turbulent Times
By Carol P. Waldhauser

Jean Doe, Esquire, is a sole-practitioner. During a recent conversation, I asked her, “What is it like for you being on your own?”

“It is scary but safe,” she replied. “Exhilarating but exhausting.”  “It is scary,” she elaborated, “because you are totally reliant on yourself, safe because you are the boss in control, exhilarating because the victories are yours, and exhausting because of the constant worry.” In fact, Jean finds herself not only dealing with the high stress of practicing law but also attempting to cope with financial stress as a single person in such turbulent times.

Recently, Jean went through a divorce that left her savings more or less depleted. If that was not enough, Jean’s biggest client left. Furthermore, the client refused to pay a huge portion of his legal fee. At the same time, two other steady clients disappeared figuratively: one died and another moved out of state. Similarly, Jean feels especially vulnerable because of the turbulence of today’s financial market. It seems that no matter how hard Jean attempts to shake off the loss of these clients her financial woes are a constant reminder. As Jean puts it, “my bills are sticking to me like Velcro; soon I will be pawning my silver to survive!”

Money worries can create enormous stress, particularly when they threaten the way you live, your home, your business and even your family. A lack of money, whether it is chronic or sudden, can cause great tension and arguments between family members and co-workers. Financial difficulties can be created by events beyond our control such as low income, job loss, litigation, health, overspending and even turbulent world affairs.

Asked which emotions they most often associated with money, 71 percent of the 20,000 people responding to a survey conducted by Psychology Today listed anxiety. Of the 20,000 people, 52 percent listed depression and another 51 percent listed anger. (The survey allowed for more than one response.) Those most stressed by money – and they were not necessarily jobless – complained of more fatigue, insomnia, headaches and other stress-related complaints.

In her book Stress and the Healthy Family, Dolores Curran found that when asked to list their troubles, “the number-one stress reported by respondents has to do with economics, financing and budgeting.” Why are money and stress so closely related? We fear what will happen and we grieve what we will lose without enough of it.

Job loss, low salary, the stock market – whatever the cause, economic upheaval is having an impact on many, even within our own legal community. Financial pressure can place individuals at a greater risk for depression, anxiety, anger, thoughts of suicide and physical illness. Marital conflicts and family violence may increase, as well as feelings of helplessness. Alcohol use and illegal or prescription drug use may start or escalate. Aggressive behavior or constant sadness may become the new norm for individuals experiencing such financial woes.

However, there are actions individuals can take to cope with financial stresses and the challenges that arise.

  • First, structure your time, set priorities and act immediately. For example, when a person is laid off, family income drops dramatically. Shock and disbelief are common first reactions. This is the worst time to withdraw and become isolated. Instead, take a constructive approach. See what services are out there to assist you. Also, prioritize and decide what things constitute essentials and what are extra. This will allow you to budget for the important things such as health costs, rent, utilities and food; while delaying or eliminating non-essential items. And don’t be afraid to downsize.
  • Second, take care of yourself. When in the middle of a financial, personal or business crisis, maintaining control is imperative. Staying healthy ensures your stamina so that you may deal effectively in finding solutions to your problems. Generally when individuals are stressed, there is a tendency to neglect health habits (i.e., annual medical tests and trips to the dentist). Of course, this can lead to more stress. Subsequently, make it a point to eat well, get enough sleep, exercise to relieve that stress and limit the use of alcohol (and some should not drink at all).
  • Third, maintain routines. Continuing activities can help you maintain a support network with others. Talk with people you trust: your family, friends and co-workers. Don’t be afraid to reach out. However, don’t be afraid to set limits with others when you don’t feel like talking.
  • Fourth, ask for help if you need it. If you are having trouble coping on your own, help is available from many sources. Professional assistance from a counselor or an employee’s assistance professional may sometimes be necessary. This does not imply weakness. It simply indicates that the particular situation is just too overwhelming to handle on your own and you need coaching to get through it!

Other things to remember when trying to understand your own personal disasters as well as those in the turbulent world around you:

  • It is normal to feel anxious about you, your family and co-workers;
  • Profound sadness, grief, and anger are normal reactions to an abnormal event;
  • Acknowledging our feelings helps us recover; and
  • Focusing on our strengths and abilities will help us heal.

Similarly, accepting help from community programs and resources is healthy. We each have different needs and different ways of coping with stress. Some signs that you may need stress management assistance are:

  • Difficulty communicating thoughts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty maintaining balance in your life
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Isolation
  • Easy frustration
  • Increased use of alcohol/drugs
  • Limited attention span
  • Poor work performance
  • Headaches/stomach/digestive problems
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Mood swings
  • Crying easily

Our attorney Jean decided to get a handle on the situation. She believed that if she was experiencing these problems, other people have been in similar situations of economic upheaval and, hard as it is, they have learned to overcome their difficulties. She elected not to keep anxiety and anger bottled up. Rather, Jean decided to talk with someone trusted and close about feelings of anger, confusion and fear.

Jean learned also to take one day at a time and one thing at a time. There may be many changes that she has to face, but it is not beneficial to try to resolve all problems at once. Solving one problem at a time gives a sense of control over the situation.

Of equal importance, Jean kept occupied, active and involved. The loss of her clients resulted in extra time to think about troubles. Naturally, time is needed to plan new marketing, but spending some of the extra time helping with a community, bar association or church project kept her positive. By doing so, Jean not only helped others but found these activities helped her build personal feelings of self-worth.

Coping with the stress and pressure of reduced income is not an easy task for anyone. There are no easy answers or quick cures. However, by reducing and minimizing anxiety, individuals can help strengthen and prepare for the future.

For more information on this subject, call the MSBA’S Lawyer Assistance Program at (410) 685-7878, or e-mail cwaldhauser@msba.org.

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