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How Anxiety Changes Our Financial Decision Making

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Paul F. Ciccarelli CFP®, CHFC®, CLU® and Steven T. Merkel CFP®, CHFC®

Across the world, a whirlwind of events brought many people’s lives to a halt. The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has caused a global pandemic and forced massive country-wide quarantines to lessen the spread of the disease. Amid this health crisis, an oil price-war between Saudi Arabia and Russia has triggered a fall in the price of oil. Both of these events have subjected the economy and individuals to a great deal of stress and anxiety.

People may be experiencing and coping with emotions in a variety of ways including modifications to judgment and decision making processes. While this is essential in life-or-death situations, it could be unintentionally problematic regarding long-term decision-making. 

Anxiety and stress are the manifestations of thoughts and fears about the ability to manage circumstances. [1]

Anxiety developed from our natural fight or flight response which early humans relied upon to tell when a situation was too dangerous. Humans still need this process to avoid potentially fatal outcomes, but the brain can have a difficult time differentiating between actual life-threatening situations and those which we perceive as being life-threatening due to certain circumstances remaining out of our control. [2]

Most know that long-term exposure to stress is not healthy and can lead to multiple serious conditions.

One of the lesser-known effects of stress is that it changes the way we think. Through attention bias, stress and anxiety alter what we are conscious of, and how we perceive the world around us. Think of it this way, if all you think about are yellow cars, suddenly all you see are yellow cars. In reality, the roads haven’t been overtaken by golden-hued vehicles, that’s just what your mind is focusing on. [3]

Stress and anxiety will change the way your brain functions, and in turn, disrupt your long-term decision making, problem-solving, and risk calculating abilities.

By disrupting the proper functioning of neurons in specific regions of the brain, stress could prevent you from making the types of decisions you would typically make. [4] If not careful, those panicked decisions could have a lasting impact on your long-term goals and full financial picture. 

Stress even changes the way men and women think about risk.

A study from the University of Southern California found that under stress, men are often more willing to take risk while women tend to take a more conservative approach, despite previous ideas or plans. [5]

As short-term survival takes over, long-term considerations are either pushed aside or are influenced by widespread panic.

The prevalence of sensationalized news, which often relies upon fear, makes it easier to focus on certain messages and topics. This may not provide all the necessary facts needed to make informed choices. Now, more than ever, you may need to rely upon those who have an outside perspective and experience guiding during times of turmoil.

When we look at the big picture of market performance over the long haul, we find that – in many cases – the most prudent course of action is to (1) stay the course and (2) capitalize on any untapped opportunities that may arise as a result of recent events.

One of the recent updates that may be beneficial to many is the postponement of the due date for filing Federal income tax returns and making Federal income tax payments. Any person (the term “person” includes an individual, a trust, estate, partnership, association, company, or corporation) will be able to hold off on filing and paying without accruing interest or penalties till July 15, 2020. Also, H.R. 6201, the Family First Coronavirus Response Act outlines certain requirements for paid sick leave and expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act. We will continue to keep you informed if there is further COVID-19 financial relief legislation.    

Psychologist Henrie Weisinger, the author of “The Genius of Instinct,” writes that people who learn to change the way they think about their problems rather than try to overcome their anxious feelings are more likely to live stress-free lives. [1] As the situation with COVID-19 and the economy continues to evolve, we want you to remember that your CAS advisor is always available to help you look past the fear and anxiety and bring the big picture into focus as we weather the turbulent tides. Today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.


  1. https://healthfully.com/193037-what-are-the-causes-of-anxiety-from-a-behavioral-perspective.html
  2. https://www.healthcentral.com/article/what-is-fight-or-flight-and-how-does-it-relate-to-anxiety
  3. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160928-how-anxiety-warps-your-perception
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201603/how-does-anxiety-short-circuit-the-decision-making-process
  5. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/stress-changes-how-people-make-decisions.html

Investment advisory services offered through Ciccarelli Advisory Services, Inc., a registered investment adviser independent of FSC Securities Corporation.  Securities and additional investment advisory services offered through FSC Securities Corporation, member FINRA/SIPC and a registered investment adviser. 9601 Tamiami Trail North, Naples, FL. 239-262-6577.

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