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Sudden Loss Syndrome

Posted Oct 21 2008 8:08am

There's an article in the Boston Globe that discusses an increase in wealthy clients seeking therapy as they battle the anxieties around our current financial crisis:

"With the sinking stock market and hordes of rich, angry investors, psychologists have a new diagnosis: sudden loss syndrome. And therapists are increasingly busy trying to remedy the predicament."

Perusing the comments thread of the article confirmed the notion that most people are taking the "oh cry me a fucking river" response to these types of problems. And on first blush I'm likely to agree. However, having seen a fair number of wealthy clients in my practice, it's important to understand that there is more going on here then simply bitching about having to sell off one of a dozen Porsches.

Yes, many (although not all) of these clients do not have a proper sense of perspective when it comes to finances and the problems with which the average person struggles. Yes, the reality is that a large number of these clients don't really have a "viable worry;" that is, most will always have enough to fulfill their basic needs of food and shelter and, most likely, still be able to buy another Armani suit or Gucci bag. And yes, it's annoying to all of us when people who are well into the six or even seven figures start bitching about when so many are freaking out about rent or thinking about where their next meal is coming from.

However, if you are even remotely interested in the human psyche, you need to ask yourself, "Why?" Why would the prospect of going from extremely wealthy to just very well-off or, God forbid, middle class, be so difficult to tolerate? Unless these rich clients fear that they'll be left with absolutely nothing at all, which most don't, then why so much angst?

On a basic level is our natural tendency to become psychologically disrupted when circumstances change. We are creatures of habit and don't often take well to adjustment. Positive or negative, we develop a foundation around our jobs, families, friends, religion and/or home and very few can experience major shifts without some sort of psychological response. That is why good psychologists enquire about a patient's psychological state when she is getting married or has been promoted in the same way as when her husband has had an affair or she is about to have surgery.

On another level, however, this "Sudden Loss Syndrome" is about identity. Right or wrong, these people see their jobs and/or their wealth as who they are. "If the ship goes down, who am I?" said one hard-core rich client in the financial industry. While not all of these clients have little else in their lives, my practice has seen its fair share of rich people with not much to fall back on: poor marriages, rocky relationships with their kids and very little recreation time because of the work that generates all that cash. If they aren't rich anymore, how will they define themselves? Helping clients develop their own answers that question is how a therapist makes a living, without judging or ridiculing.

We're all concerned about the financial crisis, some more than others. Those who might not be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment certainly have more important things to worry about than psychological identity. But for those who are not be grappling with basic human needs this is a way to learn how to build a meaningful life outside of the fiduciary arena.

Think deeply about what else is important to you: your education, family, friends, religion, sexuality, health, whatever. I have a client in the financial industry who is on the hot seat. He goes to work, does his job, worries about it while he is there, then comes home, meditates, runs 10 miles, has dinner, rocks his wife's sexual world (so he says), and falls asleep. "I don't want anyone hosting a pity party for me," he said. "I worry at the job but then focus on purely what makes me happy once I leave the office. I can only do so much planning for the future as a Trader. But I can do so much more as a husband, dad, fitness guru and lover. Did I mention how great a lover I am, Dr. Rob?"

"You did. Several times. You've also described many visuals."

"Last night the wife and I broke out this gigantic..."

"Please stop talking."

Notwithstanding this client's purported sexual prowess keep in mind what he is doing to cope with the uncertainty of the financial climate. He has decided that his life is not his job, that his Pie Chart has more slices in it. He's focusing on those other pieces and, while he's not anxiety-free, he has positioned himself to be a much happier person. Try to do the same.

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