Money is a hot topic these days; you hear about how expensive everything is, from housing to grocery items. Inflation hit a 40-year high last year. It’s coming down, but it and the pandemic have upended our financial world.
The emotional side to personal finance, though, is often not discussed, and many people are suffering in silence.
But in the privacy of therapy sessions, my patients tell me, a certified financial therapist and psychologist, that their financial situations are affecting their quality of life:
“Thinking about this money stuff makes me feel queasy.”
“You want me to rate my stress on a scale of 1 to 10, but it’s an 11!”
“I feel trapped and hopeless. I honestly don’t know where to start.”
Like my patients, you may be struggling to find stable financial footing and manage your anxiety. But there are strategies you can take to improve how you feel about, think about and behave with money.
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Money is a common source of stress
For many U.S. adults, their financial situation is a source of major stress because of rising expenses and debt.
Financial stress can harm your health and relationships. It can affect your sleep and sex drive and cause stomach upsets, headaches and body aches. It can also reduce the effectiveness of your immune system, making you more prone to illness.
Your mental and emotional well-being can be affected as well. My patients often report low self-confidence, anxiety, depression, anger and feeling overwhelmed because of unmanageable debt, living paycheck to paycheck, financial disagreements with their partners, or other financial stressors.
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This stress can lead to behaviors that might make you feel better in the short term but are harmful in the long term.
Some people might shop, or spend money in other ways, to feel better. Shopping can release feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and adrenaline in our brains and bodies. In the long term, though, excessive shopping makes your bad financial situation worse.
One of my patients was drowning in department store credit-card debt. She said, “I know I have to stop going shopping, but I justify it every time. I say to myself, ‘I can pay this off eventually,’ but really, I’m just fooling myself.”
Here are some steps I suggest to my patients to help them cope in more healthy ways with financial stress:
Recognize your triggers and spending patterns
If you find yourself shopping, ordering takeout meals or booking pricey self-care sessions when you are stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed, you may be an emotional overspender.
Pay attention to the situations that occur before you turn to spending money. Did you have a difficult day at work or a tense conversation with a loved one?
Open up to a trusted loved one
Consider sharing your money stress with someone you trust and who cares about you. It can help release your pent-up emotions, allow you to consider new perspectives and help identify possible solutions.
Manage your emotions
One of my patients would get anxious any time we talked about his income and expenses. He would get short of breath, have difficulty concentrating and feel a strong desire to talk about anything else.
Whether you get anxious, frustrated, angry or sad when facing your financial situation, determine what you need to keep these emotions in check. These tips can help:
- Name your emotions as they arise.
- Acknowledge that you are not your emotions.
- Remind yourself that they will pass.
- Try to replace negative or unhelpful thoughts with empowering thoughts. For instance, one patient would often think, “I’ll never understand this stuff. I feel so stupid.” Instead, she began thinking, “This information is new to me, and I am learning,” which helped her to calm down and focus.
- Identify coping strategies that don’t involve money, such as breathing exercises, venting to a friend or taking a walk.
- Set a time limit to work on your finances to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
- Take breaks to regroup. Exercise, listen to music, play with your children or do another activity that brings you joy.
Create a plan and track your progress
Most people seeking help don’t have a budget or consistently track their money. For instance, my patients with debt often don’t have a plan for paying it off. Having a plan for your money situation and keeping tabs on that plan can help lower your financial stress.
Getting better with money starts with taking care of yourself
Work with a professional
If the idea of improving your personal finances or facing your relationship with money overwhelms you, a professional can help. Most communities offer free or low-cost financial help for debt recovery, budgeting and saving. You can also work with a fee-based financial adviser who can give you a financial plan individualized to your needs.
A financial therapist or counselor can help you mend your relationship with money. Financial therapists can be financial or mental health professionals who have additional training in the emotional and mental side of money management. These providers can be found through the Financial Therapy Association.
Finally, if mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression or ADHD are affecting how you deal with money, you could address those with a licensed mental health professional. Find them through your insurance company or online directories. Free or low-cost therapy is offered at community mental health agencies or large universities.
Financial stress can affect you physically, mentally and emotionally. But by recognizing your feelings, noticing your behavior patterns and adjusting how you use money, you can reduce your stress and regain control of your life.
Traci S. Williams, PsyD, ABPP, CFT-I is a board-certified clinical psychologist and certified financial therapist. She helps families improve their emotional, mental and financial health.
We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.
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As a certified financial therapist and psychologist, I specialize in helping individuals navigate the intricate relationship between their emotions and their finances. My expertise extends beyond theoretical knowledge; I have worked extensively with patients who grapple with financial stressors firsthand, witnessing the toll it takes on their mental and emotional well-being.
In the article provided, several key concepts related to personal finance and mental health are discussed:
Financial Stress and Its Impact: The article highlights how financial stress can adversely affect various aspects of one's life, including physical health, mental well-being, and relationships. Rising expenses, debt, and financial disagreements with partners contribute to this stress.
Emotional Overspending: The piece delves into the phenomenon of emotional overspending, where individuals use shopping or spending money as a coping mechanism to alleviate stress or negative emotions. It elucidates how such behaviors, although momentarily comforting, exacerbate financial problems in the long run.
Unhealthy Coping Strategies: The article outlines various unhealthy coping strategies that individuals may adopt in response to financial stress, including avoidance, overeating, substance abuse, and social isolation.
Coping Mechanisms and Strategies: It provides practical advice on recognizing triggers and spending patterns, opening up to trusted individuals, managing emotions, setting limits, and seeking professional help. These strategies aim to help individuals develop healthier approaches to dealing with financial stress and related emotions.
Financial Therapy and Counseling: The article emphasizes the role of financial therapy and counseling in addressing the emotional and mental aspects of money management. It suggests seeking support from professionals who specialize in financial therapy or mental health if needed.
Community Resources and Support: Additionally, the article highlights the availability of community resources and low-cost financial assistance for debt recovery, budgeting, and saving. It encourages individuals to seek help tailored to their specific needs and circumstances.
By integrating insights from psychology and personal finance, the article underscores the interconnectedness of financial well-being and mental health. It offers a holistic approach to addressing financial stress and empowers individuals to regain control of their lives through self-awareness, support networks, and professional guidance.