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Getting a Grip on Fear in Shaky Economy : Coping: Business people face tough choices, uncertainty. Making decisions can help diminish feelings of helplessness, experts say.

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THE BALTIMORE SUN

An entrepreneur for 14 years, Sascha Wolhandler has learned to live with fear.

“It’s very scary when you hold people’s lives in your hands. When you have to make enough money in your business to meet people’s salaries, taxes, health insurance and other benefits. That’s a lot of responsibility,” says Wolhandler, who heads Sascha’s, a Baltimore catering business.

Yet entrepreneurs shouldn’t back away from risk because of the fears that business decisions can arouse, Wolhandler says. Since the day 14 years ago when (without planning) she opened her company with a crepe-maker carried back from a vacation in Paris, she has willingly accepted fear as an integral element in business.

“I just sort of plunge in, make this happen and trust my instincts. I think you have to trust yourself if you’re going to have your own business,” she says.

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Of course, risk and the fears it arouses are certainly not the sole province of entrepreneurs. At one time or another, everyone experiences fear. And business-related fears are especially widespread during economic slumps, says Susan Jeffers of Los Angeles, author “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.”

“Fear seems to be epidemic in our society. We fear beginnings; we fear endings. We fear changing; we fear ‘staying stuck.’ We fear success; we fear failure. We fear living; we fear dying,” says Jeffers, who has a doctorate in psychology and conducts seminars in what she calls “fear bashing.”

Like most entrepreneurs, Wolhandler has learned coping strategies to handle the fears that accompany risk.

“I think it’s very important for anyone owning a business to be personally diversified,” Wolhandler says. “I’ve seen business people who didn’t diversify, and the business just eats them up.

“I make it a point to go to the theater, to go to movies, to go to an art gallery opening--so my life is not all consumed with how this business is going to work.”

Wolhandler, an avid equestrian, also cares for her physical health.

Her husband and business partner, attorney Stephen Suser, says he believes that attitude plays an important role in coping with worries. “One of us usually calms the other,” he says.

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The recession has been especially tough for small business owners. It has aroused fears within corporations where managers must confront change in the face of declining sales. And it has put many laid-off people in the unhappy position of having to look for new jobs.

“Whenever we take a chance and enter unfamiliar territory or put ourselves into the world in a new way, we experience fear. Very often this fear keeps us from moving forward with our lives. The trick is to feel the fear and do it anyway,” Jeffers says.

To illustrate the universality of fear when faced with uncertainty, Jeffers recalls a story about Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City.

In the mayor’s office, Koch was a seemingly fearless man able to make decisions affecting millions with apparent self-assurance. He could face crowds of angry constituents or inquiring reporters with relative ease.

But after he agreed to do a tap-dance routine with the cast of a Broadway show as a publicity stunt, he said he was terrified.

“Tap dancing was an activity that tested him in a new way and, of course, he would be frightened,” Jeffers says. “Once he practiced and mastered the routine, the fear would go away and his confidence in himself would be heightened; he could put another feather in his cap.”

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By the same token, the recession is causing business people to behave in new ways.

Take a manager working for a retrenching software company. Told to shrink his department’s expenses, he will be understandly worried about making a mistake. He may be particularly fearful if he must cut his staff.

As Jeffers observes, however, the software manager would do far better to proceed imperfectly than to shrink from the actions that arouse his fears. In her seminars and lectures on fear bashing, she cites several “fear truths” that could help those, like the software manager, who are afraid of moving forward: “Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness. “The only way to feel better about myself is to go out and do it.”

The courage to trust oneself and to act decisively in the face of fear has a lot to do with how one is brought up as a child. “The greatest gift we can give our children is the feeling of self-worth,” Jeffers says.

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