Avoiding the Extremes

For many, this has been a year of mounting uncertainty and anxiety. With a presidential election in a few months, conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, and major social issues on the ballot—among many other factors—it’s understandable to feel uneasy about the future. But it’s best not to let those fears guide our decision-making.

After all, we have lived through other difficult and frightening times, yet many of history's unsettling predictions have failed to come to fruition. For example, in 2009, experts predicted that we would reach peak oil production, with a terminal decline anticipated in 2012. In reality, U.S. oil production reached an all-time high in 2023.

Or consider the people worrying that Donald Trump would instigate World War III. During his presidency, he was the first president since Jimmy Carter to avoid entering any U.S. troops into new world conflicts.

We didn’t stop shaking hands in 2020. Nor did we move to a fully cash-free society. We haven’t implemented a social credit scoring system in America, either.

There are of course many other examples. As Paul Samuelson famously quipped in 1966, “The stock market has predicted nine of the past five recessions.” In other words, it’s often easier to make a doomsday prediction than be optimistic. After all, if you’re right, you get to be the person who saw a disaster coming. If you’re wrong, you can be pleasantly surprised by the pleasant turn of events.

Fear Is a Poor Decider

The people who believed in these and other frightening predictions weren’t stupid for being worried. Fear is a natural response to uncertainty, and we are bombarded every day with news, insights, and opinions we must sift through and decide whether and how to respond.

The problem is that when individuals allow their fears to dominate their decision-making, they may be guided into extreme actions that can have life-changing consequences.

For one financial example, we once worked with a client who in 2008 was influenced by the media and extreme negativity after Obama’s election. He totally withdrew his retirement accounts and moved them into physical cash. Not only did he miss the market return, he faced withdrawal penalties and had to pay taxes on all of the money. In the end, he cut his retirement fund by more than half.

On the other extreme, consider people who got swept up in the excitement of cryptocurrency and invested heavily, without a strategy beyond cashing in on the trend. Some of those people would go on to lose everything when their currency of choice plummeted in value.

Practical Steps for Keeping a Level Head in Uncertain Times

The fact is that none of us know what the future holds. It’s true, also, that worrying will not make unwanted outcomes more or less likely to come true. There can be real value in being prepared and taking steps to mitigate probabilities and risks. But at some point, preparedness becomes hypervigilance, and you can take extreme action without considering the consequences of being wrong.

Here are a few practical steps you can take to protect yourself from being caught up in anxiety and rash decision-making:

1 – Take a social media sabbatical.

Seeing a relentless stream of news, commentary, arguing, and information can send your brain into overdrive. The algorithms behind many social platforms prioritize engagement, meaning bad news and controversy often float to the top, and it’s easy to find yourself in an echo chamber that validates and amplifies your fears. If you can’t bring yourself to quit social media entirely, set limits for yourself around using it and put your devices away frequently to take a break.

2 – Limit your exposure to the news.

There is value in being informed. But at a certain point, you gain no new information by continuing to watch updates and analysis, particularly when the subject matter is speculative, upsetting, or both. Consider switching off the 24/7 cable news and opting for a once-a-week newspaper digest instead. Spend more time with your family or doing an activity you enjoy rather than allowing the news to unduly affect your emotional state.

3 – Slow down on making decisions.

Important life choices rarely demand instantaneous responses. Before taking any action, take a deep breath and a step back. Sleep on it. Consider the pros and cons. Talk to a trusted friend or advisor. Take the time to let some of the emotions wear off, and approach the problem with a level head before deciding what to do.

4 – If you must take action, hedge.

Decisions don’t have to be “all or nothing” commitments. It’s often best to take a more cautious and measured approach that covers all contingencies. If you’re wrong, you’ll still have other things to fall back on. That’s the theory behind diversifying your stock portfolio, and it’s true in other areas of your financial and personal life as well.

5 – Turn over your anxiety in prayer.

Philippians 4:6-7 says it best: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We are not promised an easy or worry-free life, but surrendering those worries to God can relieve some of the psychological and emotional burden of uncertainty.

The Wisdom of an Objective Advisor

One of the greatest benefits a financial advisor can bring to your life is a level of objectivity. We know your finances well, but we are not emotionally invested the way you are. This allows us to see the bigger picture sometimes when you’re focused on a small detail.

We welcome our clients to send us news and questions they’re struggling with as it relates to financial decisions and current events. We’re happy to talk through your anxieties and sort through what’s bothering you to find action items that aren’t so extreme. Together, we can determine a level of risk you’re able to tolerate and diversify your portfolio in a way that eases some uncertainty. We’ll work with you to identify your goals and build a plan around them, rather than being caught in the whims of the market or the media’s negativity bias.

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