The last few weeks, I've been covering my eyes before I look at my investments, and only peeking through my fingers — as if I'm facing Freddy Kruger rather than a series of numbers. It doesn't help that the financial headlines are full of frightening potential futures: a possible recession, trade wars, and potential market corrections.
It's enough to make me want to take all of my money out of my investments and put it somewhere safe, like my mattress.
But no matter how overwhelming a market fluctuation may be, I also know that pulling my money out of the market is the worst thing I could do when my portfolio is trending downward. That's because the only way to guarantee that momentary losses become permanent is to sell.
Of course, knowing that you should stay the course is a lot easier said than done. If you're tempted to cut your losses when you hear gloom-and-doom financial predictions, it's especially important to learn how to keep your cool. Here are some ways you can stay calm when the market is scary.
Hiding your head in the sand gets a lot of flak, but there are times when it really is the best course of action. That's because of a cognitive bias that prompts us to take action in response to fear. We feel as though doing anything, even if it is counterproductive, is preferable to sitting around doing nothing. But listening to the action bias is the reason why people sell when the market is at its lowest and buy when it's at its highest. They're afraid of doing nothing.
Since it's nearly impossible to overcome the voice in our heads shouting at us to "Do something!" when the market is falling, the easier method of overcoming the action bias is to simply ignore your portfolio.
Of course, that doesn't mean you should never check on your holdings. However, obsessively consuming financial news and checking your portfolio on a daily basis will lead you to making fear-based (or greed-based) decisions, rather than following your rational investing strategy.
Instead, plan to check how your investments are doing on a regular schedule — either every month or every quarter. This will give you the information you need to keep your asset allocation balanced and make necessary changes, without falling victim to the action bias. (See also: 5 Ways to Invest Like a Pro — No Financial Adviser Required)
Although the phrase "past performance is no guarantee of future results" is all but tattooed on the foreheads of every stock market analyst and financial planner, there is good reason to look at the past performance of the market as a whole. If you study the long-term trends and overall historical returns, you'll see that markets inevitably trend upwards.
Knowing that the market will recover does not make the short-term losses and volatility any more fun to live through, but it is easier to put any momentary losses you're experiencing in context. Savvy investors who didn't panic through the market corrections of 2000 and 2008 saw their portfolios recover over time. As stressful as any decline may be, trusting in a solid investment plan and the long-term historical trends of the market can help you stay the course and feel confident that you and your money will get to the other side. (See also: How to Prepare Your Money for the Coming Economic Slowdown)
One of the reasons why we tend to overreact to volatility is because we forget that it's a natural part of financial markets. Market downturns are normal, and we should expect to live through several of them in a long investing career. However, we often expect that markets will only go up. With that kind of expectation, even a minor dip can feel overwhelming.
A good way to counteract those expectations (and the resulting fear when they're not met) is to create a plan for what you'll do during a downturn.
Your volatility plan could be as simple as committing to your head-in-the-sand strategy for downturns. Knowing ahead of time that you'll reduce your portfolio check-ins when things are looking grim can help you stick to that plan.
Your plan can also be proactive, rather than just reactive. Since you know that market downturns are normal and natural, decide ahead of time how you'll incorporate these fluctuations into your investing strategy. You might decide to purchase more investments during a downturn, rather than see it as something to fear. (See also: 7 Easy Ways to Build an Emergency Fund From $0)
Human beings are not wired to be rational investors, which is why we tend to be so bad at it. Our emotions can get the better of our rational strategies, especially when we're feeling afraid. But selling your investments because of market volatility and scary headlines is using a permanent solution for a temporary problem.
Think through how to respond to frightening market changes before they happen. Then you know that you already have a plan to fall back on, and you're less likely to simply react out of fear.