Do you have financial PTSD?

Business psychiatrist Dr. Mark Goulston.

Bob Moon: As we just heard, the terrorist attacks on September 11th prompted many people to make big changes in their lives, and with their finances. Business psychiatrist Dr. Mark Goulston says 9/11, along with more recent financial disasters like the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis
and financial collapse, have deeply scarred our national psyche.

Mark Goulston: Many of us are going through the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. That name has been thrown around many places, often attached to returning veterans. A thumbnail of what that is, is often when you're traumatized and you're traumatized severely, and for people whose money and life-savings has really taken huge hits, that's a trauma. What happens is you do whatever you can to make it through it, but you don't get over it. You get past it. And it kinda breaks through your feeling that nothing can hurt me.

Moon: So I would guess that there's a bigger chance that you would be more affected by something like, say, the big financial meltdown than 9/11 in many ways, because it directly would affect your finances.

Goulston: I think what goes on for a lot of people, something that I call the "Four D's of financial PTSD," and that's debt, dependency, distrust and then our denials in working. And what that means is when you're in debt, whenever someone calls you to try to get money from you, it re-traumatizes you, it makes you realize how you don't have what you thought you had. And then, when you feel that vulnerable, you reach out -- who can I depend on? Who can I rely on? I'll call my stock broker, I'll call my financial person. I'll read the news. And then what happens is when you hear the news changing from day-to-day, you feel I can't trust anyone.

So when you're in a state of feeling like the world is trying to take more money from you and you don't even have that much leftover, and who can you depend on, because you don't know what you can do under your own control, and the people that you have trusted, you can't trust anymore. It puts you into this real state of irritability, almost brittleness, fragility. And that's where the fourth D is, what allows us to get through life is denial that functions...

Moon: "I'd rather not think about it."

Goulston: There you go. I mean, if we were aware of how dangerous it is to drive, how dangerous it is to fly, all the side effects of every medication we take -- if we didn't have healthy denial, we would be frozen. So I think what's happening is people are living with these four D's constantly, which leads to "so what do you do about it?" So any thing that'll help you regain a sense of control will help you feel better. And also, talk with each other and you listen to each other, makes it better.

Moon: Now, the skeptic in me though, wants to say this is financial trauma. Is this really PTSD?

Goulston: At its extreme, it is. Some of my closest friends ran the marines for a number of years and what they shared with me is every Marine who has been in a hour has PTSD. It's just a matter of degree. Anyone who has seen horrors can't help but be haunted by them, but there's a whole continuum about where it breaks into your daily functioning and your ability to interact with other people. So let me hit the skeptic in you: Imagine someone who put all their eggs in one basket, didn't have a back-up plan and really prided themselves in being able to take care of the people they love -- and it's suddenly gone, with no hope of getting it back. I mean, I can see there's a skeptical look in you, but in your mind's eye, can't you imagine that someone like that would qualify for PTSD?

Moon: What are some of the warning signs, if you will, that you might be experiencing this?

Goulston: OK, warning signs are you feel a change in your personality, you tend to be irritable, you snap at people, you're withdrawn. But the key signs for PTSD is that you tend to relive the event over again, either in dreams or you even have flashbacks when you read the newspaper. And you want to avoid it, you want to avoid being re-traumatized, because if you're feeling vulnerable and you get another hit, a lot of people feel a shatter, I just won't come back. And then the third thing is that you have this increased arousal in your hyper-vigilance. So you can't ever totally lower your guard. And if you think about it, think about that you can never lower your guard, so you never know what it's like to relax.

Moon: For someone who's listening to this and thinking, "That describes my loved one, or my co-worker," what could they do to help someone out?

Goulston: You don't need one of your loved one's permission to intervene in their life, to protect them and to help them and prevent them from going in deeper. Instead of asking permission, instead of saying "are you alright?" when you've seen all these symptoms, I think what you say to them is, you could say, "You might not like me after this, but as your friend, as your loved one, I don't need your permission and I've found a place and I am taking you there and we are going there. And you can yell at me the whole way there, but I would expect the same from you." And I think if you can come from a sense of strength and confidence and firmness and protectiveness, I think they may not smile at you, but inside they will feel relieved. And one day, they will be grateful to you. Some of them will be grateful that you saved their lives.

Moon: And last question: Why shouldn't I feel debilitated by all of this, particularly if I'm close to retirement and my whole life has been wiped out?

Goulston: Well, a lot of that comes back to your perspective in life: What is really important to you. And I think if you can find something that enables you to get past venting or beating up yourself to actually exhaling -- that can tend to re-center you and relieve you. And one of the best ways to do that is to care about others and feel cared about by them.

Moon: Dr. Mark Goulston's latest book is "Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone." Thanks for being with us.

Goulston: Thank you.

Moon: If you want to hear more about financial PTSD -- check out our Makin' Money blog.

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Dr. M. Goulston,
I thought your interview with Bob Moon was very eye-opening and solved a lot of feelings that I was having myself. I, as well as others, was tramatized by both 9-11 and the 2008 melt down, I knew I was not the same after each event but, I couldn't put my finger on these returning feelings of negativity that seemed to be coming to the surface time and time again. Now I know what it is and why they occurred and are still ocurring. Thank you very much for the insight. This article has been fasinating.

D Davis, What I meant was that when someone you care about is frozen and can't help themselves you don't need their permission to step in and get them or take them to help. And by help it may mean a therapist, a smart relative or friend that cares but your spouse won't ask, a group where he can just get a breather from his imagination that may be stuck in a doom tape loop that he can't break, or to sit next to him exploring options on the Internet. Years ago I was seeing a fairly low income social worker client who was frozen about going to the IRS for an audit. Instead of talking her into it (which wasn't working) I went with her and an unsorted shopping bag of receipts, because she was allowed to bring another person. During the middle of the audit, she started to panic and I revealed to the IRS auditor that this person was actually my patient and I was her psychiatrist and I firmly urged them to take care of the matter today as this was not going to get any better. With that, the agent became anxious, called in a supervisor and together the three of them went through the receipts and came up with a modest settlement. My client felt enormous relief as did the agent and her supervisor when we left.

Greg, I agree and would dearly love to find a structural solution that works and hope we can find that, but if you are a deer frozen in the headlights of a car, you need to do something or else you're going to get run over.

I have friends who have had years of therapy for one thing or another; they’re as messed up as ever and thousands of dollars lighter for the effort of it. That’s one thing, but I would ask this: Is there a chance—just a possibility—that the problem here is not with the individual but with our laissez-faire financial model, and how it has evolved since the eighties? To me, this piece sounds like a very caring, scientific, and sophisticated way of saying, “It’s a personal problem,” and reminiscent of the days during the Cold War when Soviet citizens were taken to institutions for therapy when they dared to question the state; except, now it’s a failing crony capitalist system that inspires doubt and distrust, and the denial is private, rather than public.

As an attorney who specialized in real estate, condominiums, and construction contracts and who has suffered from tremendous financial difficulties since the market crashed with a husband who is a teacher and 2 young children, I can completely relate to what you discussed because, as I listed to the interview, I identified myself and several of my friends (primarily attorney friends who have also suffered as a result of the economy and are finding it difficult to regain stability without any hope of maintaining or returning to their previous lifestyles) with everything you said--and we are all people who thought we did the right things in terms of living within our means, savings, contributing to retirement, etc.(which have been depleted by now). My questions are, however, (1) when you said that a loved one should take such a person in which they see these things happening and tell them: "I found a place and I am taking you there", what is "the place" to which you are referencing? A therapist, a mental health facility, the mall for retail thereapy, a spa retreat? I'm hoping it's one of the latter 2 but am guessing that's not what you meant. And (2) what physical symptoms relate to this type of PTSD as you didn't discuss those--symptoms such as extreme anxiety, depression, developing issues such as IBS and psoriasis, severe insomnia, and other issues and symptoms I simply attibuted to regular stress?

For PTSD to occur it requires a trauma and someone who quite vulnerable to being traumatized. After all there are people who have been raped that haven't developed it. A 50 something, usually male, main provider (and much of his worth attached to it), who has lost most of his money and his job and may be unhirable may fit that vulnerability criteria.

Oh Please. Really? Really? Honestly now.

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