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Anxiety About Money - How to Find Relief

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistAugust 13, 2019

Do you worry about money? Countless people do—surveys consistently find that finances are one of the most common sources of anxiety. Maybe you worry about having enough money for retirement. Or perhaps you’re living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to pay your rent or mortgage on time. Mounting credit card debt only adds to the unease.

I first encountered financial anxiety as a kid, sensing my dad’s stress as he tried to make ends meet with five boys and one income. I remember my mom paying for groceries with food stamps, and getting our clothes from a local free bin.

And while my situation as an adult is different from what my parents experienced, I’ve felt the stress and uncertainty of being self-employed. It’s easy to imagine how fragile our family’s position is, and how a serious illness or injury could severely disrupt the life we share.

I also know from both personal and professional experience that anxiety about money isn’t entirely dependent on your financial situation. There was a time when I earned more than I do now, yet felt more worried about our finances. On the opposite end, as I was growing up, I saw my parents remain calm even when their finances seemed hopelessly tight, leaning on their faith (my dad was a minister) and heeding Bible verses that encouraged them to trust God for all things. And in my clinical work, I’ve seen patients show tremendous resilience in the face of major financial pressure, like being fired from one’s job in midlife, or being unable to work because of depression or other disability.

So, while our actual financial situation is one variable that can trigger anxiety about money, there are ways to manage these concerns. See what happens when you apply some of the following suggestions.

Remember that even financial ruin would not be the end of the world.

We often imagine that our feared financial catastrophe—going bankrupt, losing our job, facing foreclosure on our home—would mean the end of life, like a cliff at the edge of the world. I feel this way myself. When I worry about the fallout if I were no longer able to work, my imagination usually stops at “… and then we would lose our house,” which feels like Game Over. And yet, if that were to actually happen, it would simply be a challenge that we would need to face together as a family, as so many families have.  

The ending we imagine exists only in our minds. In reality, life will go on, and no matter what may happen there will be something that comes next. Rather than anticipating a terrible conclusion, you can remember that life is big enough to contain your feared financial outcomes, and won’t end even if they come true.

Practice gratitude toward money.

“Zen Millionaire” Ken Honda describes practicing arigato with money, which means saying “thank you” each time it’s given or received. Through this practice you can develop what he calls “Happy Money,” in which positive emotions are attached to your money instead of fear, guilt, resentment, and so forth.

When we get paid, we can say thank you. When we pass the money along to someone else in exchange for something we need, we can say thank you. When we have unexpected medical bills that drain our savings, we can say thank you that we can afford the care for ourselves or our family members, and that medical expertise is available (I’ve had to use this one myself on multiple occasions). Gratitude is death to anxiety about money.

Make a budget.

Sometimes anxiety about money comes from not knowing where it’s going or how much we actually have. We might even avoid making a budget and tracking our expenses because of anxiety, like putting off a doctor’s visit because we fear the diagnosis.

You can stop this kind of avoidance by leaning directly into it. Don’t worry if you’re not sure where to start—there are many resources available to help, like this one. You’ll probably feel more anxiety as you get started, which is normal. As you stick with it and get more familiar with the specifics of your finances, your anxiety will decrease.

Look deeper than money.

Anxiety about money typically points to something deeper. You can discover the underlying fears that drive your financial anxiety by asking, What would be the worst thing if _____ happened? Fill in the blank with whatever you’re afraid of—losing your job, not being able to pay the rent, etc. Continue asking yourself what the worst thing would be about what you’re afraid of until you find your deepest fear—is it ending up homeless? Being inadequate? Losing the respect of your friends and family?

If you never question your surface-level anxieties, the actual root of your concerns will remain hidden and unaddressed. Once you identify the deeper fear, you can address it directly (perhaps with the assistance of a therapist). For example, you might discover deep-seated beliefs about not deserving to be happy, or about being fundamentally not enough. Your money worries can lessen as you make real changes in these core beliefs. 

Build your relationships.

Most of our fretting about money comes from our desire to reach something called “financial security,” in which we no longer are worried about our finances. Unfortunately this type of security is an illusion. In fact, as our savings and portfolios grow, so do our worries: What if the stock market crashes? What if the financial system goes belly up? As long as we place our faith in our financial situation, we’ll continue to have reason to worry.

The best insurance against financial calamity, advises Ken Honda, is to invest in our relationships. Whereas money’s true value comes only from exchanging it for something else like food or clothing, relationships are inherently rewarding. And no matter what happens with our money, the people that truly care about us will be there for us when we need them. On a very practical level, they might offer food or a place to live in a time of crisis. Relationship investments are low risk with a very high rate of return.

Open to uncertainty.

Anxiety about money comes from uncertainty about the future and our lack of control over how things will unfold. We don’t know if our company will downsize, or if the economy will tank, or whether climate change will trigger an economic catastrophe. We often expend tons of energy trying to figure out the future and make it align with our wishes. These efforts to eliminate uncertainty and the anxiety that comes with it actually backfire, as they strengthen our implicit belief that we should be able to control the uncontrollable.

Why not let go of the struggle? Uncertainty is what makes life an adventure. In fact, the outcomes we fear often turn out better than what we were hoping for, like when a devastating job loss ends up leading to a much more rewarding career. Instead of trying to erase uncertainty about the future, we can embrace it.

Shift your perspective.

Popular culture is saturated with images of happiness, wealth, and success. Your social media feeds probably are, too. Thus it’s easy to start to think that “everyone” is doing fine financially, and that your concerns are unique and personal. This imagined contrast between your situation and everyone else’s can trigger not only anxiety but envy and resentment.

It can help to consider those who are worse off than you, and who would give their right arm to have your money worries. I know for myself that the “worst-case scenario” of my financial concerns are a far cry from the kind of abject poverty in which countless people live and die—where children starve, the “middle class” lives in tin shanties, and the homeless die from exposure to the elements.

Finally, keep in mind that joy is always an option, no matter what your circumstances.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl called “choosing one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” the “last of human freedoms”—a principle he learned through his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. This maxim applies perfectly to our financial concerns.

As we release our anxieties about money, we can more fully enjoy what is ours. Determine today to notice all that you have, including the food you eat, the clothes you wear, and the home that shelters you. No matter what you bank balance says, enjoying your life will feel like truly being rich.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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