Northwestern Mutual conducted a survey earlier this year that shows most Americans still feel a great deal of financial anxiety. Among the adults they interviewed, 85% said they regularly experience financial anxiety, and 28% at least worry about their finances on a daily basis. What were the things people listed as their top fears?
- A financial emergency
- Unplanned medical expenses
- Job loss
- Long-term unemployment
- Insufficient retirement savings
The most common issues that contributed to these fears were predictable: the rising cost of housing and healthcare, mounting credit card debt and burdensome loans, and shrinking pensions/uncertainty about Social Security benefits. Some of these things we can control, but some we cannot.
All of us have had financial problems at some point in our lives. For me, it seems to come in seasons. We’ll be on top of our savings goals, have wiggle room in the budget, receive a few surprise sources of extra income, and then — suddenly — everything goes wrong. We get hit with hefty out-of-pocket medical expenses, spend a little more than we’d anticipated on a weekend adventure, have to take the car into the shop… you get the idea.
Although I know everything works out in the end, even if it takes a few tight months to get things balanced out, it’s hard not to feel anxious and let financial problems affect my mood. For some people, it even affects their long-term physical health and sense of happiness.
Financial Anxiety: It’s Not Just in Your Head
Back during the 2008/2009 financial crisis, psychologist actually coined the term “money anxiety disorder” to describe a condition in which worries about real or perceived financial difficulties evoke the body’s fight-or-flight response. In other words, because the person’s emotional anxiety is so intense, the body kicks into survival mode. Symptoms include rapid heart rate, erratic breathing, sweating, shaking and nausea. What starts as a mental activity turns into a physical response.
We all know how hard this consistent stress response is on the body, even at milder levels (just look at how much material is dedicated to stress-relief in the self-help section!), but how do we combat it?
I’d like to share three tips that might help.
#1. Mindfulness: Recognize It
Mindfulness is a fancy therapist term that simply means becoming more self-aware. Practice tuning into your body so you’ll be able to recognize the signs of anxiety before they get out of control. It might work best to move backwards from your physical symptoms to their source. How does your body react to anxiety? Can you sense your heart rate increasing, a sweat breaking out on your forehead, or your hands starting to shake?
You won’t be in the state of mind to deal with the real problem until you deal with the symptoms, so take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, listen to some music, go for a quick walk — whatever it takes to calm down and recenter yourself. Learning to take control of your emotions can enable you to move from simply recognizing financial anxiety to actually doing something about it.
#2: Confront It
Ask yourself what trains of thought, activities, and hot-button financial topics trigger your negative emotions. What’s the source? Is it past financial fall-outs, a constant ‘shortage’ mentality, societal pressure to live up to a certain standard of success?
Once you recognize that your reactions are fear-based rather than rationality-based, you can confront the cause of that fear with logic and action.
#3: Take Small, Practical Steps to Improve Your Financial Outlook
Trying to tackle too many big issues at once is overwhelming. Choose one of the most pressing issues to deal with first, and brainstorm about how you can address it. If you’re at a loss, seek help from financially-wise family and friends or professional advisors.
Learning to overcome financial worry and anxiety is a process. Be patient with yourself, and you’ll see progress.