Many market specialists say they think that a transition could go more smoothly in the long run if interest rates continue to rise as the United States economy grows. Still, even in that optimistic situation, a wide array of market participants will have to shift their operating procedures and assumptions from a world where declining interest rates were a given.
"When past performance has been so consistent, the risk that investors underestimate the risk, I think has consistently been an issue," said Richard Ketchum, the president of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which oversees brokers.
The recent market volatility highlights the connection between Wall Street investors and consumers. Banks set mortgage rates in line with the yields on mortgage-backed bonds, for example. So as a sell-off has hit the market for such bonds, causing their yields to rise, ordinary borrowers end up paying more.
The rising cost of a new mortgage has already pushed down the number of people refinancing old mortgages, putting a crimp on a recent source of extra income for many households.
The looming question now is whether higher mortgage rates could stall the rally in home prices that has been taking place across the country.
Many real estate analysts say that homes are so affordable that even a considerable rise in interest rates would not do much to undermine the housing recovery, especially if the economy is growing at a healthy rate.
"There's no strong correlation between interest rates and home prices," said Douglas Duncan, chief economist at Fannie Mae.
But Joshua Rosner, a managing director at the research company Graham Fisher & Company, said many Americans were still so heavily indebted that even a small rise in mortgage rates would hit the housing market. "Affordability is already a problem, and rising rates won't help that," he said.
For governments around the world, a rise in rates will eventually push up their borrowing costs at a time when they may still be grappling with fiscal deficits. Some countries will probably be able to take a steady increase in their stride. But a jarring wave of selling has recently hit certain bond markets in Latin America and Europe, pushing up borrowing costs for governments there.
(Read More: Why Rising Mortgage Rates May Trap You: Zillow CEO)
Recent market moves have also been an unpleasant jolt for ordinary savers who have come to view bonds as a stable anchor for any retirement account. The Vanguard total bond market mutual fund fell 2.7 percent last month after returning a steady 5.4 percent a year since 2008. Funds holding junk bonds, which were one of the hottest investments in recent years, have suffered even more.
Some managers argue that the important thing is to shift between different types of bonds, de-emphasizing longer-term, government-issued bonds. But whatever the mix, it is likely that bonds will present a risk to investors that they have not in recent history.
"There's no doubt we're living through the end of a generational bull market in bonds," said Scott Minerd, the chief investment officer at Guggenheim Partners.
—By Nathaniel Popper and Peter Eavis of The New York Times