By: Kevin D Arnold, PhD, ABPP
Sr. Executive Director, The Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy

Typically, we see an unhealthy kind of anxiety regarding financially uncertain times: worrisome thinking.  When the worry becomes hard to control, and interferes with happiness, then it falls within generalized anxiety.  Below are two key strategies to manage these out-of-control ideas and the physical reactions they so often cause.

Worry and Physical Anxiety about Money

Presently, the news and social media outlets contain many stories about scary financial concerns.  For example, interest rates have climbed so high that houses don’t sell quickly, many people cannot afford to buy homes and housing costs (even rent) now consume large portions of someone’s income.  These factors, while true, are emphasized by the media and often can occupy much of people’s thinking.

Often, worrying about money can be motivating.  Sometimes it leads to a reduction in spending, or other times it causes additional time spent working (and earning money).  However, if the worry becomes out-of-control, then often motivation turns to anxiety.  When the shift to anxiety occurs, thinking about money turns to catastrophic predictions about financial loss and losing everything.  Often, these thoughts may be irrational, but they seem very believable for those experiencing high levels of anxiety.  Along with the uncontrollable worry and catastrophic ideas, physical symptoms happen: increased heart rate, constriction of blood flow to the hands and feet, flushing and shortness of breath.  Additionally, there can be nausea and lower gastrointestinal symptoms.

When the physical reactions begin, often people will take them as proof that the catastrophic ideas are true.  As the physical symptoms increase, the irrational belief that they support the worry and catastrophic thinking grows.  Often, a loop in thinking happens: “We will lose everything! Look, I’m panicking and sick! There must be something to really be afraid of. All is lost!”

Countering Out-of-Control Worry about Money

To counter-act this vicious cycle, people must take a two-step approach.  First, they benefit from testing what the thoughts say.  For example, have there been “all is lost” outcomes in the past when financial downturns occur? While some folks do experience loss during down financial times, often most people recover from those downturns and survive (and even end up thriving).  Testing the evidence of the size of one’s own financial problems (rather than just believing the catastrophic thinking) and judging the likelihood of actual financial ruin (for example, looking at others you know who are facing similar challenges and surviving) help to challenge the believability of those thoughts, as well as the high-probability ratings we assign the thoughts.

Handling Physical Anxiety about Money

In addition, managing the physical symptoms, especially after they seem to react almost automatically, requires a counter-intuitive approach. Most of us manage physical symptoms using a roller-coaster-ride approach: hold on and try to ignore how scared we are.  Others try using relaxation to manage the physical symptoms.  While either strategy could work for one person or another, generally the physical arousal is tied to a part of our fight or flight neurology (the Autonomic Nervous System, or ANS).  The ANS learns automatic responses very quickly, and tends to rear up at the worst times.  To counter the physical responses, most folks benefit from not avoiding triggers or sensations, but instead by causing something called habituation.  Habituation essentially over activates the physical reactions and holds them high enough for long enough that they go away through a natural process.  It is as if we eventually bore the ANS with the trigger, especially since no life-threatening event actually happens when worked up.  This strategy requires forcing oneself to think the anxious thoughts without distraction, often for perhaps as long as 20 to 30 minutes, sort of like flooding the brain with them.  Often after a few days, the anxiety response reduces and eventually goes away.

Summing Up

Management of worry about finances in these challenging times requires actively challenging our thinking and confronting our physical responses.  When worry about money starts to interfere with life and happiness, these two key strategies often help.  Remember, thoughts are in our head, and most of us benefit from getting out of our heads and into our lives. People sell themselves short regarding their abilities to deal with problems, so it’s important to keep in mind all the times we’ve handled things and see ourselves as competent problem solvers. And, physical reactions can be relearned (the way athletes change their muscle memory), if we force the physical reactions to stay with us until our natural habituation processes take over.

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