I don't know whether it's the recession, the bursting of the tech bubble or terrorism, but lately I seem to be spending a lot of energy contending with fears. Mainly my clients' fears, but to be honest about it, some of my own as well. In these last few volatile months, I've derived considerable consolation from one of my favorite Samuel Clemens observations, "I have suffered many things in my life, most of which never happened."

The majority of my clients are living in the final quadrant of a typical life span. If you ask them, they'll tell you that as teenagers they were oblivious to their mortality. But as they've grown older, they have become more conscious that time is running out. Even among emotionally and spiritually healthy people, awareness of their finite condition commonly produces a mild background anxiety rooted in fear of the unknown, fear of pain, fear of extinction, fear of insignificance, that sort of thing.

Now that our whole population is subjected to nightly updates on the "war against terrorism," the incidence of this vague mortality-anxiety certainly has increased, and it affects a wider-than-usual swath of society. When our clients give voice to these sorts of concerns, or when we as advisors hear this kind of anxiety lurking in their phrases, I believe that we are in a position to be helpful to them.

Like most financial advisors, I am not trained to counsel people in cases of deep, disabling fears. However, I do believe that each of us, as a human being with a range of life experiences, has something to offer a person caught in the grip of anxiety. Often, we will be able to suggest a calming perspective. But when such an experience does not occur to us, we can certainly listen with genuine interest and ask the kinds of questions that help people identify their fears and find the answers that are already within themselves. I like to think of this as therapeutic kindness, and I see no reason to exempt ourselves from its duties just because our commercial role is financial in nature.

I have discovered that a good place to begin is to call anxiety by its name, "fear," and face that fear together in conversation. I quote Sam Clemens to remind clients that many of the situations we are afraid of never actually materialize. Then I suggest that we can save ourselves a great deal of stress by following a simple three-step process:

A) Identify the prospects that cause us to feel afraid.

B) Decide what we actually can do to avoid or cope with the more realistic of our concerns; this could include getting a medical checkup, developing our religious faith, working on family relationships, buying umbrella insurance or selling a stock we own too much of.

C) Dismiss the more unlikely

disasters and those we cannot do anything about under the rubric of "We'll cross that bridge if we come to it."

When we have done these three things, we can peacefully repeat one of my favorite mantras, "All you can do is all you can do, and all you can do is enough."

Mind Mapping

In these days when physical safety seems uncertain, 70-year-old retired teachers Gary and Martha Sullivan are very uneasy about living 1,200 miles from their children's families. What used to be a two-hour plane trip is now a tedious three-day drive each way. In a recent meeting, we were reviewing their travel budget when I noticed the stress surrounding this subject of visiting the family. So we took a time out to examine what was upsetting them, using a very interesting tool.

Years ago, I learned a method of surveying all the dimensions of an issue-it is called "Mind Mapping." I strongly encourage you to visit www.mind-map.com, where its inventor, Tony Buzan, will escort you on a wonderful experience that can dramatically improve your memory, multiply your capacity for learning and enhance your powers of analysis. Here's the essential process.

Print a word signifying the principal idea (in this case, FEAR) in the middle of a piece of paper. Above the word, draw some sort of graphic or icon to represent the idea because this will stimulate your mind's natural tendency to think creatively and relationally, rather than in a linear fashion. As your mind begins to generate related ideas, write them somewhere on the paper and attach them to the central idea with lines. These words or concepts will trigger others, which, in turn, can be connected as seems appropriate.

As a network of related facts, questions and ideas begins to emerge, you can use colored markers, icons, underlining and bolding to emphasize more central ones, or ones that matter more to you. What happens as you add color and other forms of emphasis is that ideas tend to form groups, and some kind of natural hierarchy of larger concepts emerges from the detail. I have been amazed at the fresh perspective and new ideas that this exercise has stimulated.

"What are you afraid of?" I asked Martha as I printed the word FEAR in the middle of the paper and drew above it a worried version of a smiley face. "Flying is one thing," she answered. So I drew a cartoonish plane with its nose pointed down and connected it to FEAR with a line. "Why is flying scary?" I asked. She looked at me like I had rocks in my head, but I gestured for her to continue. "Because we could be kidnapped, we could be killed." So I printed "kidnap" and "die" and connected these to the airplane. It's amazing, but things actually look less frightening when you write them down.

"What else are you worried about?" I directed this question to Gary, who, with arms folded, had taken no interest in the exercise so far. "Well, I was hoping we would talk about our investments today. I am worried sick that this terrorism business could trigger a depression and wreck our nest egg. But at the same time, I have seen the stock market rising for the last two months, and I am afraid that we could be missing the boat."

So, on another part of the paper I made a line drawing of a cracked egg, and connected this to FEAR. Then I added a ship with smokestacks to symbolize the boat that Gary was afraid of missing. From the ship, I drew a line that merged into the egg's line just before it reached my worry icon. I dotted both lines with little dollar signs to show how they were related.

"How do you feel about not flying, does that reduce your anxiety?" "Sure, but it means we can't see our family as often as we want to." "Oh, so having time with the family is the bigger issue?" As Martha agreed with vigorous nodding, I wrote VISIT KIDS along with some stick figures holding hands and connected this to the middle of the airplane line. "So you can control the risk of flying by not flying, right? And you don't mind that very much, except it makes it hard to see the children. Is there anything you can do about that?" As they responded, we drew lines from VISIT KIDS to their answers ... drive; longer visits; move closer.

As Gary and Martha chatted up the MOVE CLOSER idea, some of their dissatisfaction with Florida began to surface, and the idea of coming back to New Jersey began to sound like a viable, even attractive, notion. Before they left our meeting, they agreed to develop a list of pros and cons and the financial aspects of getting re-established in the Northeast. They would come back to our office in two weeks, and we would go over the details together. As they left that afternoon, Gary and Martha were noticeably animated about the hopeful possibility of living closer to their family.

Financial Worries

I was intrigued with Gary's rival concerns of losing his nest egg and missing out on investment opportunities. I assured him that I would give this some serious thought and that we would address it at our next meeting. When they had left the office, I eagerly pulled out another sheet of paper and drew a big egg in the middle of the paper. I divided the egg into four quadrants: stocks, bonds, cash and other.

For the next hour, I let my mind wander over the possible risks and rewards of different asset classes. I really got into it! On the subject of stocks, I drew dozens of lines relating to valuation ranges over the years, the history of recessions and the relationship between earnings yields, inflation and interest rates. I had branches labeled growth stocks and value stocks, small caps and large. I divided bonds into governments, corporates, munis and foreign. Before I even got to other, I was wishing I had started with a poster board because I was running out of space.

Then all of a sudden it hit me: I was not working on my client's concerns. I was working on my own. The advisor is the one who has to make the allocation decisions. What Gary needed was to find a comfort level somewhere between his personal Scylla and Charybdis, his fear of missing opportunities and his fear of losing his nest egg. I didn't tear up the investment mind map, because I think that this is going to help me sort out today's complex portfolio issues. But I did spread out a fresh sheet of paper on my desk to explore my client's irreconcilable fears.

In the center, I printed Sullivans' money, and above it I drew $$$$ with a green marker and then drew an egg around the whole thing. At the left edge of the paper, I drew a comparable egg with $$$$ and connected the two with a horizontal line. On that line, I printed "20% stock, 80% fixed, 5% withdrawals." This formula came from our earlier work showing that with a 20/80 allocation, Gary and Martha could take out 5% a year (adjusting for inflation each year) for the rest of their lives, even if we hit a long stretch of poor stock market returns.

Next, I drew a horizontal line from the original egg about halfway to the right edge of the paper, and from there a dotted line rising to the upper right and another dotted line descending toward the lower right corner. I labeled the horizontal line "50% stock, 50% fixed, 5% withdrawals." The upward sloping line said STOCKS GREAT and the other dotted line read STOCKS POOR. A very large egg with $$$$$$ topped the upward line and a little, tiny egg with a single $ decorated the lower terminus. From the circumference of each of the three eggs, I drew lines emanating like rays. Now I was ready for the Sullivans.

On their next visit, I explained that there were three possible scenarios. Their portfolio could be maintained, expand or shrink. The more risk we take in an effort to grow the nest egg, the greater the possibility that the strategy may fail. The point of this "eggsercise" was to discover whether the risk of failure was worth taking.

I asked Gary and Martha together to label the lines that radiated from each of the three eggs. On lines that radiated from the status quo egg, they wrote the things their current nest egg would provide: move near the children, nice condo, two vacation/yr., LTC premiums, modest inheritance, independence and feeling successful.

On the large egg, they labeled the lines country club, best nursing home, large inheritances, feel very successful, better cars, and they left two lines unused. The lines from the tiny nest egg read poor, small apartment, no inheritance, rely on kids, medicare home and feel like failure.

We did have a brief discussion about the current state of the stock market and what the odds might be for very good growth over the next 10 years. I was not encouraging in that regard. But it was clearly the exercise itself that brought husband and wife to a firm consensus that their current life, sustained by a conservative portfolio, was a very good life indeed. If there was even a 20% chance that taking more risk could result in that nasty little egg in the lower corner, it was not worth the risk. Gary was now perfectly content staying ashore because he realized that ship of opportunity just might turn out to be the Titanic.

J. Michael Martin, JD, CFP, is president of Financial Advantage in Columbia, Md.