If you’ve finally reached the point of financial stability, it might come as a surprise when the mere thought of looking at your bank account still leaves your heart racing and your palms sweating. Maybe you wince when you get the email reminder that your credit card payment is due, or cast bills aside (or even avoid checking your mail), promising yourself that you’ll deal with everything later. Logically, you know you’re not in financial trouble, but you just can’t get rid of the pit in your stomach when it’s time to face any task related to money.
Checking your bank account can cause anxiety and stress; even for those who are doing well financially, it's far more than just a number on the screen. “Because money touches so many aspects of our lives, we project a tremendous amount of personal meaning onto it,” said Amanda Clayman, LCSW, a financial therapist who partnered with human services organization The Actors Fund to form a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)–based program focused on financial wellness. “It can represent your fear of failure, one-upsmanship with a sibling, regret over a bad spending habit, or frustration with where you are in life.”
It probably won’t come as a surprise that avoidance isn’t the solution to financial anxiety. An all-or-nothing approach of checking an account or opening bills after weeks or months of not looking can actually make your anxiety skyrocket. But these negative feelings aren’t a necessary part of dealing with personal finances, and experts have several suggestions and strategies for getting to a place where the process isn’t so fraught.
Stress and anxiety about money can have deep roots that were planted years ago. Perpetua Neo, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety and frequently treats patients with financial anxiety, said there’s typically a firmly ingrained “story” attached to extreme stress surrounding finances. It may come from something a person observed throughout childhood. For example, if a parent repeatedly said, “We’re running out of money,” or became distressed when bank statements arrived, it may have seemed like stressing about financial well-being was a normal part of adulthood. Experiencing upheaval—like moving to a new place or switching schools—due to a parent’s job loss could cause a personal “story” about money to be one of loss and scarcity. In other cases, the anxiety may not stem directly from financial woes; it could come from any stressful experience, such as being bullied as a child.
“When something bad has happened to us, our world of assumptions shatters and we start believing in the worst,” Neo said. “Our brains are wired to remember and be affected by loss.” Essentially, anything traumatic—especially if it happened during childhood—can train people to consistently feel pessimistic. Neo focuses on helping clients rewrite their stories. In one case, she had a client whose father was the sole breadwinner but then lost his job when the client was a child. The client observed his parents’ fear every time they opened a bank statement, so the story in his head was that bank accounts cause distress. To re-frame his mindset, Neo prompted her client to look at the reality of his adult life logically: He was no longer living in his parents’ past, he made a good salary, and he spent responsibly. By factually assessing his situation in the present, he was able to accept that his old story was “expired” and replace it with the more accurate understanding of his life, in which he is a financially stable adult.
Sometimes, bank account anxiety stems from big life changes, like switching jobs, moving to a new city, or having a child. A person might know they need to adjust how they manage their money, but the thought of actually doing it can be overwhelming. Clayman recommended making a Plan A, B, and C when thinking about these potential changes. “When we feel trapped, and forced into a change, our brain goes into fight or flight mode, and it becomes much harder to manage our rebellious impulses,” Clayman said. Having multiple options will reinforce your sense of agency, and you’ll feel more in control of your financial situation.
Clayman said her patients often describe addressing their finances in an intense manner that does more harm than good: they’ll log into their bank accounts for hours to review pages of confusing data, look at line after line of transactions, and go down a rabbit hole “until they quit, exhausted, having just confirmed that this money thing is so awful, they were right to avoid it the whole time.”
Clayman said the first goal of finally looking at a bank account for the first time in a while should be to gather information, not to make any immediate changes. “Any change—even good change—creates a certain amount of associated stress,” she explained. If you’re concerned about your budget, spend a month observing your spending patterns. Look at when you spend money, and what you’re buying. Do you spend money when you’re bored, insecure, or having a bad day? These are all important things to be aware of. “All financial behavior is meant to meet a need, be that social, emotional, [or] physical,” Clayman said. “We can't change behavior until and unless we can find another healthy way to make sure those underlying needs are met. Taking the time for that step sets you up for success.”
There are several techniques derived from CBT that can help people change how they think about money, establish new habits, and reduce anxiety. Clayman recommends that people who are anxious about personal finance figure out how much time per week they’re willing and able to spend dealing with their finances, and then be consistent about it. If 30 minutes per week sounds doable, they should carve it into their schedule and make it part of their routine. If that sounds overwhelming, they can start smaller: Dedicate 15 minutes a week to banking, or perform one manageable-feeling task each day, like paying or even simply reading one bill. “It really doesn't matter how small you start,” Clayman said; the goal here is to begin to decouple anxiety and avoidance.
Looking at a bank account regularly in small doses can help slowly shift the related mindset. “The more you... face it, the more you teach your nervous system—and brain—that this is not a scary task and that you've got this,” Neo said.
Clayman said there are other ways people can make handling their financial responsibilities more bearable. One couple she treated made a date out of their weekly account check-in. They brought their laptops to their favorite café and sipped tea as they reviewed their spending. After their “money date,” the couple rewarded themselves by sharing a bottle of wine and talking about their week. Another client who initially had trouble sticking to her plan scheduled herself to finish dealing with her finances right when Game of Thrones came on. “Rewards are an excellent way to reinforce progress and help [yourself] stay consistent,” Clayman said. “They don’t have to be extravagant or exotic. The most important aspect of the reward is that you truly enjoy it, and associate it with your effort.”
Having to manage money will always be a part of adulthood. “[Don’t let] anxiety rush you toward some imaginary finish line,” Clayman advised. Instead, find a practice and routine that allows you to feel in control of your financial life—and stick to it as much as possible.
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