Analyze This

Anxiety Management in an Economic Crisis

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week
Coping with the loss of a house or job is easier if you’re resilient. Trusted friends and increased self-awareness can help build the trait.

In a word, resilience. The ability to bounce back is crucial in tough times–not just for economies but for human beings. Many psychologists consider it a key component of emotional health. Resilient people, they have observed, are naturally better at containing their anxiety. And that enables them to see in hardship the seeds of opportunity. What would emotional resilience entail in the face of the current crisis? The ability to resist being swept up in the global state of panic and to adapt as creatively as possible to one’s setbacks and losses.

As with most personality traits, the roots of resilience usually are developed in childhood, when some combination of temperament, family support, and perhaps plain luck helps an individual prevail over adversity–even something as traumatic as the loss of a parent. Once overcome, such experiences can be carried into adulthood in the form of resilience.

Does this mean you have to suffer to develop this quality, or that it’s too late to become resilient during adulthood? Not at all. But just as there is no shortcut to emotional health, you can’t become resilient overnight, or by sheer will, or by reading the latest book on the subject. Instead, resilience is acquired through increasing self-awareness. You must connect with trusted and candid intimates who help you build confidence. You need to repeatedly expose yourself to a range of difficult circumstances and then overcome them. (A few years ago, I pushed one of the CEOs I advise to defy his fears and take risks in the face of losses. The tactic–he wound up developing new products–paid off, both literally and in the form of durable confidence.)

In the current meltdown, I see the resilience factor at work in the CEOs I speak with. Some see a dangerous and unpredictable time that they hope to “ride out.” Others consider these events a chance to learn, as they focus on protecting their companies and looking for opportunities. It’s not easy to figure one’s way out of the loss of a job, a home, or the bulk of one’s savings. But resilience can help banish the extreme anxiety that prevents clear thinking, action, and the ability to imagine what’s around the next corner.