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Working Through the Big Emotions of Financial Upheaval

By Kate Rockwood | April 24, 2020 | Rally Health

If your finances make you anxious, you’re not alone. Before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, 60% of Americans were stressed out by money, according to the American Psychological Association. None of us are untouched by uncertainty about what lies ahead, and that can cause unexpected emotions. 

“Entering into this crisis, most of us already had anxiety and stress around money,” says Brad Klontz, PsyD, CFP, a financial psychologist and managing principal at Your Mental Wealth Advisors and associate professor at Creighton University. “Then you throw the virus on top of it. You’re worried about your financial situation, and you’re also worried about people you love getting sick.”

It’s normal to need time to come to terms with layoffs, business closures, investment losses, or other financial upheaval due to COVID-19. And it’s OK to be upset about the situation, says Patricia Tidwell, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker. “It’s incredibly stressful,” she says. “I’d be worried about people if they weren’t upset.”

But there are many ways to move through the financial stress, anger, and sadness to a place of action. By recognizing your emotions, you can use them to drive your effort to take as much control of your financial situation as possible. Financial and mental health experts share insights on how to get started.

Identify Your Emotions

“We all have feelings and beliefs about money: earning money, having money, losing money,” says Tidwell. “Anger, grief, anxiety, and sadness are all feelings that are healthy, albeit uncomfortable, to have about what is happening now.”

Alex Melkumian, PsyD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of the Financial Psychology Center, adds fear, worry, and avoidance to the list. He says that financial stress from the pandemic can force people into survival mode. “Being in survival mode activates the fight, flight, or freeze response,” he says. “Considering the sudden onset of the pandemic, many people are in the freeze cycle. They feel paralyzed or are overthinking what to do next.”

The first step to working through these emotions is recognizing them and understanding that they are normal, Tidwell says. By taking a moment to identify what you’re feeling, you’ll be able to more easily find ways to work toward solutions. 

“The sooner you can get to acceptance, as difficult as it may seem, everything else will be easier,” says Melkumian. “It’s a mental pivot that will disengage the emotional part of your brain, which is not helpful in moments like these.”

Recognize What’s Out of Your Control 

Unlike other, more personal financial upheavals, remember that many of the economic forces of COVID-19 are completely out of your control. Your state or local government may have told you that you can’t go to work or need to work altered hours. And it’s necessary for people to stay away from businesses in order to stop the spread of the virus. If these circumstances have altered your financial situation, it’s important to recognize that it’s not your fault, says Klontz.

“The good news is you don’t need to feel ashamed about it,” he says. “You’re also not alone.”

By recognizing this, you can avoid “personalizing the pandemic,” says Melkumian. Keeping an eye on the big picture can protect you from some of the negative emotions that are often associated with financial trouble, such as shame and guilt. 

Find Healthy Ways to Manage

Once you’ve identified your emotions, it's important to find mindful ways to manage them, says Tidwell. She suggests physical exercise for a serotonin boost and meditation for reducing anxiety.

“Putting feelings into words also helps reduce the experience of feeling overwhelmed,” she says. “Talking to others helps you feel less alone. It can be helpful to learn that others are in similar situations with similar feelings.” Consider talking to a therapist or other mental health professional for more personalized methods for handling your emotions, she says. If you’re employed, check if your company offers free counseling through your health benefits or an employee assistance program.

If you still feel paralyzed by fear and anxiety, Klontz suggests confronting it head on by thinking through any worst case scenarios. What if you lose your job? Maybe that means you wouldn’t be able to pay your mortgage, and would eventually have to move in with your parents. Though it’s difficult to think about, letting this hypothetical play out can actually calm your body’s “life or death” reaction, by demonstrating that even in the very worst case scenario, you will likely still be physically safe, Klontz says.

Fight Regret with Action

With so much uncertainty ahead, it can be easy to fall into regret about the past. Why didn’t you start that emergency fund earlier? Why did you take that vacation last year, when you could have saved that money? While it’s natural to wonder about the what-ifs, it’s important to remember that dwelling on the past will do nothing to improve your current situation, says Tidwell.

“Regret is about mourning a lost opportunity, and is often filled with shame,” she says. “It can take over, making it harder to do what will help now.” 

Instead of letting your regret balloon into shame, which can keep you stuck, use any missed opportunities as lessons for the future, helping you chart a path forward, Klontz says.

“Did you have an emergency fund?” he asks. “Probably not. That makes you the average American. But now you see why you need one. This is a perfect opportunity for you to look at your spending habits.”

Take Control of What You Can

Being stuck at home may actually give you the time to start sorting out your finances in a way you haven’t been able to before. Maybe you can create a pandemic-specific budget, or place some monthly subscriptions on pause and use those savings to start a rainy day fund. This type of action might be exactly what you need to ease your financial worries, says Tidwell. “Taking stock and making plans can reduce anxiety and help you feel more in control,” she says.

“Become conscious of your spending, looking for ways to minimize expenses that are unnecessary,” Klontz suggests. “Interest rates are really low, so maybe now is the time to refinance your mortgage. There are opportunities right now for people.”

He also suggests researching some of the federal relief programs to see what type of assistance you may qualify for, especially if you’re a small business owner. And to keep yourself motivated, remember that, eventually, the COVID-19 pandemic will be in the past.

“Picture yourself when this is all over,” Klontz says. “How do you wish you would have gone through it, including your mind-set, attitude, and behavior? Try to be that person now, because eventually this will be over.”

Note to our readers: This information is being made available as a free resource to the public. It is not an endorsement of any of the Finance-Related Resources listed in this article — financial consultants, planners, services, organizations/associations, websites, tools, lenders, credit unions, or banks. None of the finance-related resources listed have solicited Rally Health to be included, and Rally Health receives no compensation from the Finance-Related Resources mentioned in this article.

Kate Rockwood
Rally Health