Financial stress saps your ability to effectively focus on cognitive and decision-making tasks. It's essential to work constructively to reduce financial stress instead of trying to avoid it.
- All of us worry to some degree about money. We worry about having enough of it, we worry about managing it properly, we worry about who should pick up the tab, or what we'll do if our card is declined. And this isn't necessarily a problem for the most part. We don't have to love dealing with financial matters. We don't even have to like it. But we do need to make sure our level of stress doesn't impair our ability to tackle and execute financial tasks. Here are some steps to reduce financial stress so that you can clear your mind of money worries, if even for a little while.
Number one, understand that feelings aren't facts. The function of stress in our bodies and brains is to bring our attention to something. If we're worried about something, that's our body's way of prompting us to look for ways that we can resolve the situation and remove the source of our anxiety. But, with money, this can be tricky, either because a solution is not easily identified or because that solution isn't readily available. For example, I might feel that my financial stress would go down if I had more income, but I may not have the time, training, or opportunity at hand that would allow me to do that right now.
Or, pursuing more income might cause challenges in other parts of my life, like needing new childcare resource or taking me away from my family more than I'd like. Without a clear course of action, I remain stuck in my stress, unable to move forward. When I say feelings aren't facts, I don't mean that the stress itself isn't real or that the thing you're worried about is imaginary. I mean that when stress is in our head saying, just do this, do this, do this, it's like a siren calling us to action. When, in fact, taking that action may not be the best thing to do.
Or, at least we aren't sure if it is yet, which leads us to step two: focus on calming your body down. Stress is a physical reaction. Our bodies course with cortisol and adrenaline. Our heart rate and blood pressure go up and our prefrontal cortex goes offline as blood flow is directed to the limbic system. That's the part of the brain that's tasked with managing our fight, flight, or freeze response. But without our prefrontal cortex engaged, it's more difficult to take in and process information, analyze options, and predict consequences.
So, if we're sitting in front of a stack of bills, sweating over what to pay first, we're actually in a compromised state to execute that task. That's when it's time to pause and deal with the physical reaction first. Take a few minutes to breathe deeply. Go for a short walk or connect with a friend. Give the body what it needs to calm down and then you can get to the task at hand. Once you're ready to focus, look for ways to break the problem down. Begin by identifying the knowable facts.
For a big complex worry, like retirement, you might find out your projected Social Security benefit, how much is currently in your retirement accounts, and various projections based on savings and return rates. You could also research the cost of living in different areas and average healthcare costs. It doesn't have to be perfect or comprehensive and the facts may not point you to a particular answer. But this, at least, starts to partialize the problem into what you can know and what you need to solve for so that you can focus your energy and attention on that second part.
Next, we want to identify what we can do. In my Managing Cashflow workshop, I have a chart, attached here is an exercise file, for how to manage bills, pay off debts, and organize savings in various stages of financial security. No matter what you're working on, the final step is always the same, stop, identify what you can do to manage your situation, and then you can tell yourself to rest. We may have financial worries and stressors that are in our lives for a while, but if we go through these steps, we remain alert and informed, ready to take appropriate action when the time is right, and we reduce so much suffering and strain in the meantime.