Many planners don’t know a key neurobiological fact about a panicked client: namely, the client may not be able to process any advice until they calm down, Cynthia Harrington, a Los Angeles-based behavioral health consultant to the financial services industry, told a gathering of planners at the Women Advisors Forum in Huntington Beach, Calif.

“When a person, male or female, is in (a state of) fight or flight, they do not have access to the cognitive functioning of their brain,” said Harrington, whose presentation drew on research from biology and neuroeconomics.

In other words, all your efforts as a planner to reason with a panicky client will probably fall on deaf ears, Harrington said.

The one response that has been found to be effective with a panicked client is to name the emotion, she said.

“It’s been found that when you can label the reaction, physiologically the amygdala calms down and all of a sudden there’s access to the cognitive side of the brain,” Harrington said. “The challenge is how to do that without sounding patronizing.”

Using the European debt crisis as an example, she offered the following sample script:  “Yes, Greece and Spain seem to be going under. That is probably the cause for some alarm not just in the country, but here as well. Would you say that this makes you feel more afraid than 9-11?”

In that way, she said, planners can help clients put a context around what they find frightening and help them to realize “that there is not a mastodon in the office about to eat them.”