Money is quantifiable, humans are not
It has been three months since you have been laid off your job. In the first two or three weeks, you were able to manage to pay all your monthly bills: rent, electricity, food, and so on. However, you are entering month three. It is getting harder and harder to make ends meet and the inadequate income has finally caught up. Now, it is not a question of if you can buy new clothes and afford to go to a nice restaurant once a month, but rather “how am I going to feed myself this month”. The urge to call your friends and family is shadowed by a strong sense of shame and guilt.
While the scenario written above devastating, it is not a rare nor an irregular story. It is something that happens to countless adults for an extended period of time, leading to financial trauma. When an American survey reports that about three quarters of adults experience stress regarding finances, it comes as no surprise that the compounding of stress snowballs into symptoms of PTSD. However, the disconnect between money and our emotions creates a lack of acknowledgement in how these intrapersonal and interpersonal financial issues are dealt with. While the problem might stem simply from money, financial health is not just about quantitative data. It is about having a stable and healthy relationship.
Financial trauma, as Brianna Wiest writes, is caused by the effects of one’s income being insufficient for the expenses for a long period of time.1 Not only does it affect our emotional state, but it also negatively influences our physicality and our cognitive functions. When we are faced with financial stress, the autonomic nervous system in our body signals the body to react in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. As these responses are not suggestive of a healthy and balanced reaction to prolonged distress, it makes it quite clear that our response to financial stress can lead to grave and alarming emotional responses. Economic hardship as a child or inability to secure a stable income as an adult are one of many situations in which it can lead to financial trauma.2
Similar to PTSD, depression is also commonly seen in those who endured financially traumatic experiences.3 The cyclic nature of depression can stem from the recurring and overbearing thoughts of shame and guilt that is often caused by one’s financial instability. The stigma surrounding money prevents people from acknowledging and addressing their financial worries and issues with professionals and these issues are often kept bottled up. This further pushes people into lethargy and continues the cycle of depression.4 Galen Buckwalter, who is an expert in financial trauma, emphasizes that as our stress system was developed way before money become an integral part of our everyday lives, our body’s response to financial stress is not transient like it would have been when we’re chased by a bear, but rather continous.1 Unlike a sudden stress trigger that is momentary, this consumes our body every second of the day.1
Additionally, when society establishes a financial hierarchy where the higher you are, the better off you are, many start to associate these different levels with one’s worth. The more money you have, the better you are as a person. In retrospect, we know this is far from the truth and an extremely myopic way of looking at self-esteem. However, the coupling of money and self-worth is a result of social conditioning that is prevalent yet harmful.5 The danger of this association is that we start to evaluate ourselves by using a single number (ex. income) and as transient being that is easily replaceable, such as being cut from a job. In times of low financial stability, questioning our self-worth often becomes an additional stress factor that can contributes to the accumulation of distress and damage. When our goal to overcome this chronic stress of finance seems unachievable despite the hard work, this traumatic experience leads to symptoms similar to those of PTSD.
Is there an end to this?
Money is an integral part of our lives but more importantly, it is crucial to understand that they do not define our worth.
A healthy relationship with money is not synonymous with perfection. A recovery from financial trauma is completely possible with addressing the core issues that lead to chronic stress. While budgeting and planning are important aspects of recovery, respecting and acknowledging our emotions is a vital aspect of truly accepting ourselves. When we are more familiar with our feelings, it becomes easier to identify emotions in various financial situations. Some may think pushing our emotions aside and relying on our logic is the only way to go; however, this can lead to both psychological and physical distress, which is something we want to avoid. Some ways of facing chronic financial stress and trauma include:
- Respecting our emotions and acknowledging them
- Keeping a budget and trying to aim for transparency for yourself
- Talking to family, friends, or professionals
Our emotions are a crucial aspect of who we are. It is important to include them in the conversation, even when we’re talking numbers.
- Wiest, B. (2021, January 7). Financial Trauma Is A Reality For One Third Of Millennials, This Expert Explains How To Recover. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/briannawiest/2019/04/04/financial-trauma-is-a-reality-for-one-third-of-millennials-this-expert-explains-how-to-recover/?sh=7cb2dc38130c.
- Polizzi , M. (2021, April 29). Growing Up Poor Can Cause Long-Lasting Trauma-Here’s How You Can Overcome It. Health.com. https://www.health.com/money/child-poverty-financial-trauma.
- Tull, M. (2020, March 27). How to Get Treated for Your PTSD and Depression. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/ptsd-and-depression-2797533.
- Wehrenberg, M. (n.d.). Shame and Depression. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/depression-management-techniques/201507/shame-and-depression.
- Gariepy, L. (2020, June 23). Your relationship with self-worth and money: It’s complicatedLaura Gariepy. Financial Best Life. https://financialbestlife.com/your-relationship-with-self-worth-and-money-its-complicated/#:~:text=Research%20shows%20there’s%20a%20powerful,someone%20has%20healthy%20self%2Desteem.