HOW TO OVERCOME THE THREAT OF FINANCIAL STRESS
I would like to introduce you to Maureen Cooper, the founding director of Awareness In Action and the author of this post. She trains people in the application of mindfulness, meditation and compassion in their lives. When she accepted my invitation to share her wisdom on how to deal with financial stress with you all, I was thrilled. I am sure you will too.
I had my first experience of financial stress in my last year at university in the UK. At that time students still got grants related to their parents’ income. My dad was a real stickler for making me manage on my own and he resisted paying the top-up to my grant that, strictly speaking, was due to me.
I had also fallen heavily in love and was trying to balance the dizziness of that emotion with the sheer slog of preparing for finals. Somehow it all got away from me and I managed to spend most of my term’s grant allowance before half-term.
There were a few days of mild panic. Then my new boyfriend and I worked out that if we lived for the rest of term on baked potatoes with cheese sauce we could squeeze through and just about manage. So that’s what we did. We bought a big sack of large potatoes and as much cheese as we could afford, and they became our staple diet until the end of term.
It was a bit boring after a while but also kind of fun and a bit daring. I never really worried about getting seriously into debt or having no money at all. I was young and my parents were behind me—perhaps slightly disapproving but not about to let me starve. It was a good story to share with my friends during the holidays and did not have much lasting effect.
Experiencing Financial Stress As
A Threat From Outside
Finding yourself in a tight spot financially as an adult can be a whole different story.
Human beings have a highly effective stress-response system. When we experience a threat, our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) shifts our energy sources towards fighting off an enemy, running away, or freezing (sometimes known as ‘playing dead’)
The SNS also signals the adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenalin, and cortisol. This means that we breathe faster in order to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. The hormones cause the blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to the muscles, so that we can run.
Our digestive, immune and reproductive systems all shut down in order to support the rush of energy to enable us to move fast. The whole system is designed to enable us to escape the threat, stay alive and pass on our genes.
This is all well and good when we are in immediate danger. The exact same response happens for all mammals–for example, a zebra running away from a lion. The big difference is that once the zebra has escaped from the lion, it quickly settles and returns to grazing quietly.
Humans have difficulty in distinguishing between a life-threatening situation and a minor irritation. So, our body goes through the exact same upheaval when we face a traffic jam, a long queue in the supermarket, or a conflict at work. In addition, we have a problem finding our off-switch. The stress of a situation can rumble on hours after the incident is over.
Financial stress threatens our way of life and undermines our hopes for the future. It leads to all kinds of stress-inducing spin offs—such as difficult negotiations for loans, conversations with social services and strict economies in everyday life.
However, it is rarely a one-off event which we can gear up to deal with and then return to normal. It tends to go for weeks, months, or even years. For all that time, our systems are trying to cope with the threat.
Worrying About Money As A Threat From Within
Another difference between zebras and humans is that no zebra would understand why someone might lie awake at night worrying about something which might never happen. Humans have the unique ability to worry about things they fear might happen or imagine might happen.
Perhaps we lose our job and find ourselves sleepless with worry that our money will run out before we find a new one. Maybe we are considering buying a new house but find ourselves anxious about whether or not we can afford the mortgage. Or we can worry that our car won’t pass its MOT and we won’t be able to afford a new one. A less dramatic, but more familiar scenario could be the simple, relentless, day-to-day struggle to make ends meet. An on-going battle to stretch a small income to cover all expenses can be extremely stressful and exhausting.
All of these worries could happen but the thing is that they have not happened and yet they act as a threat coming from our own minds and causing us stress.
Guilt, Shame and Isolation As The Results of Financial Stress
Lurking beneath all this worry are the feelings that come up about our situation beyond the obvious fact of coping with it. As an adult—perhaps with people depending on us—it is easy to feel a sense of shame at our financial worries. We feel guilty for not being able to manage better, to be a better provider. Our situation saps our confidence and undermines our abilities. It is all too easy to feel inadequate, failing in some regard, even unlovable.
When we try to escape financial worries, we can easily become quite isolated. We have no spare money for going out and socialising. There is no extra for entertaining, so we don’t ask people round to our place. We are not buying new clothes, or having our hair done. Going to the movies, or the theatre is out of the question. Our lives become confined by our lack of money.
How Meditation Can Help
There are many benefits of meditation but here we are going to focus on meditation as a way of building resilience. Life can be seen a series of joys and sorrows. Whether we have financial worries or not, there will be many times when we struggle with change and difficulty. Resilience is the ability to get back up after adversity. Resilient people are able to meet challenges as opportunities for self-reflection, learning and growth.
Hans Seyle, the grandfather of stress research, famously said,
It is not the stress that kills us. It is our reaction to it.
Let’s look again at the scenario of lying awake at night and worrying about how our finances could turn out. Or the feelings of shame and guilt that torture us when we are struggling with money. All these extra feelings become a series of endless stories in our minds. These stories feed on each other and sprout new shoots making an endless confusion of worry.
Meditation helps us to understand our mind and how it works. We focus on being in the present moment. So, we don’t follow our thoughts of the past, or chase after thoughts about the future. This helps us to see our thoughts and emotions more clearly, and to bring them into perspective. We can see that there is more to our minds than the thoughts and emotions that so often occupy it. Left to itself, the mind is spacious, limitless and free. It’s only when we cloud it over with lots of mental activity that it becomes problematic. Meditation stops us getting stuck in the stories that exhaust us so much.
If you are interested in meditation and would like to learn more, you might like to download this checklist to help you get started.
The Role of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is the ability to recognize when we are suffering and in pain and to have the wish to do something about it. Being able to admit that we are struggling is the first step to being able to work with it and change our situation.
Caring for ourselves as we go through difficulty can mean changing some of our habits and taking a fresh look at how we usually deal with things. Remember, in terms of our stress response, we tend to go into fight, flight or freeze mode.
Chris Germer takes these three elements further and relates them to the three kinds of stress response. When we feel threatened, we can fight with ourselves by means of harsh self-criticism. How often do we berate ourselves for not coming up to some invisible standard we have set ourselves? With the flight response we try to isolate ourselves to deal with our pain. We don’t want people to see us this way and want to hide away. If we freeze, we tend to become very self-absorbed and to get caught in intense rumination. Our stories run around, and around in our minds.
Self-compassion provides an antidote to each of these three conditions. Instead of giving into our inner critic and believing all the negative stuff it throws at us, we can learn to practice self-kindness—treating ourselves like we would a good friend.
If our tendency is to isolate ourselves, we can reflect that just as we go through tough times ourselves, so does every other person on the planet. That is just how life is.
When we get stuck in our worries and become self-absorbed, we can get a new perspective through mindfulness and meditation.
So self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness become a set of skilful means to help us work with the threat of financial stress, and all the other threats we face.
How We Cope With Financial Stress
Having money troubles is a real problem, that needs serious attention and a means to put it right. However, the suffering we experience can be brought into perspective through meditation and self-compassion. If we can care for ourselves using these tools, then we can be stronger to deal with the actual problem. It might not be easy, but we are not drained by trying to deal with all the extra baggage from the stories we create about it in our minds.
Maureen Cooper runs Awareness in Action, which offers workshops, online courses and coaching on integrating meditation and kindness into all aspects of everyday life—work, relationships and your personal journey. You can follow her on Twitter & Facebook and read her blogs here. She runs a free 5-day e-course How To Make Self-Compassion Your Top Priority
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