Friday, February 27, 2009

Anxious Over Money? Stop. Just stop.

Most of us feel at least some anxiety over money these days. No need to reiterate the cause; we all know what is happening. We are beset by what ifs. What if we aren’t saving enough money? What if we aren’t putting it into safe enough institutions? What if someone in the family loses a job? What if one of us gets seriously ill? What if the car breaks down?

To try to assuage all this anxiety, many well-intentioned people are handing out financial advice these days. (And some not-so-well-intentioned, so be careful.) But is anybody listening? It’s so easy to give advice, and so hard to follow it. Every day, each of us makes decisions on small and large issues that could impact our financial health in the future. Despite nodding solemnly about the necessity of building a rainy-day savings cushion in these uncertain times, many of us continue to spend as if our incomes are not likely to be threatened. Oh, maybe not on big items like supersized televisions and new cars. Most of us have gotten the message about those. But on the little items that add up to just as much. Why? Are we trying to keep life unchanged until the blow falls? Are we instinctively trying to store up plenty now, in case catastrophe strikes? Are we simply rebellious? Do we fantasize that somehow, everything will turn out okay, so we don’t actually have to change our habits? Is this another instance of incurable American optimism? Except that, along with refusing to change, we feel anxious.

But many of us have suddenly switched to saving instead of spending. So many that we are accelerating the downward spiral of the economy. And we’re still anxious. It feels odd, initially, to have changed a habit. When I had to drastically stop spending years ago during a period of sudden (relative) poverty, I grieved, actually grieved, for a while. I wandered through stores where I used to spend freely, and I felt very sorry for myself. And then gradually, my emotions caught up with my new habits. I no longer went shopping aimlessly in stores where I couldn’t afford to buy. My attitude and behavior began to fit my circumstances. What at first was a kind of purgatory became a new way of living. I don’t miss the old habits at all. This is good news, because some of us have to change our habits right away, whether we want to or not. Does this mean that we might suffer Starbucks withdrawal for economic reasons, and eventually not be sad over it? Yep. Not right away, perhaps. But humans are almost infinitely capable of adapting, even to unpleasant circumstances. The important thing to keep in mind is that while this economic downturn might force us into dramatically changing our lifestyles, we’re still in charge of our response to all this. We do not have to be anxious and miserable. We can choose to shape our emotional response to unpleasant circumstances. (I didn’t invent this idea. It’s a Holocaust survivor concept. And the point is, many people did survive and a positive attitude had a lot to do with it.)

Feeling anxious probably won’t change any outcomes. Anxiety over money is only useful if it galvanizes us to act to improve our situation. After that, it’s time to shut off the negative thoughts. We don’t want to develop a lot of cortisol to roam our bodies and weaken our immune systems. And we don’t want every day to be filled with fear. The answer is to do as much as we can to positively affect our situation, and then stop fretting. Feeling anxious has never solved a problem yet. So stop. Just stop.

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