Makin' Money

Do You Have Financial PTSD?

Dr. Mark Goulston Sep 9, 2011

You have been traumatized by a financial disaster from which you are convinced you cannot recover or come back, nor believe that you can find a job to support yourself. Imagine for instance someone who trusted and then lost everything they owned to Madoff, with no chance of recovering it.

Signs and Symptoms:

  • Ruminate about it everyday and multiple times per day
  • Intense distress when you you think about it
  • Plagued by anger at others and yourself
  • Deep feelings of guilt and/or shame
  • Socially withdrawn and non-communicative
  • Feel disconnected from others
  • Loss of interest in activities, sex or life in general
  • Feeling you have a limited future
  • Problems sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Physical symptoms such as headache, heart palpitations, nausea, sweating, muscle tension, fatigue
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Irritable and jumpy
  • No sense of humor
  • Feeling depressed or anxious
  • Increased alcohol or prescription medicine use


Mostly present in middle class Baby Boomers who have lost much of financial security and no clear job possibilities. Millenials (people born between 1980 and 2000) do not feel it so much, because they haven’t saved much and feel they still have many years ahead of them. Gen X-ers do not feel it so much because they feel they have always had to fight for what they have (vs. believing Boomers and their Millennial children are soft). Also more prevalent in people with preexisting depression or anxiety, high level of family or marital conflict, substance abuse, alcoholism.


Initial trauma with no ability or chance to psychologically or emotionally stabilize that is tightly connected to market volatility. This creates the 4 D’s.

  1. Debt – when owe so much and are constantly nagged at by creditors.
  2. Dependency – when feel unable to pull yourself out of it and need to rely on others
  3. Distrust – when don’t feel you can trust institutions like banks or even financial advisers to protect you.
  4. Denial – when are unable to tune out the above the 3 D’s and focus on positive aspects of your life.

What to do about it?

  1. Practice the Serenity prayer:”God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
  2. Each day focus on what you can do or get done or someone you can call or contact to help your situation.
  3. Schedule time to do 2 above and do it regardless of whether you want to or not. Best to do early in day so that it is not hanging over your head.
  4. Do something to help your community or people around you. That will help you feel more worthwhile and less alone.
  5. Seek out support groups or even financial advice groups/classes to counter being alone with your negative feelings. Being alone with them make them worse and fear can quickly become panic; frustration can quickly become anger; disappointment can quickly become discouragement.

**What to do if someone you love might have it? (i.e. a spouse who has lost a lot of your savings)? **

Find out a resource to take them to (including your family doctor). If they resist, don’t ask their permission. Take charge of the situation without being hostile, impatient or controlling. You can say firmly, “I don’t need your permission to step in to help you in any way I can when I think you in a bad place, because I would expect you to do the same for me.”

Written by Dr. Mark Goulston, a business psychiatrist and author of “Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.”

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