Doing This When Money Is Tight Could Help Your Anxiety

Finances can be especially stressful during times of celebration. Here's how to reframe how you think about money to help you feel less anxious.

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Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images.
Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images.

If you’re struggling financially, joyous occasions (think: friends and family members’ weddings, birthdays, and other holidays) can bring more stress than joy. When you’re trying to watch your budget, the expenses can really add up between buying gifts, travel, and countless parties.

Changing the way you think about your money can really help. Naturally, when our bank account is low, our anxiety tends to be high. Research published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotions found that people living with low incomes also feel as though they have less control over their lives. The solution? Reframe how you’re thinking about the situation.

“As social inequality continues to rise, it becomes increasingly important that we understand how emotional regulation strategies might benefit mental health across the socioeconomic spectrum,” Claudia Haase, Ph.D., of Northwestern University and co-author of the study said in a statement.

To conduct their study, Haase and her colleagues used data from a national survey as well as their own laboratory-based experiment to get a better idea of how people use a technique called “cognitive reappraisal” to help deal with anxiety related to finances. This strategy involves attempting to regulate your emotions by reframing past or anticipated stressful experiences, which in turn can help reduce anxiety.  

Interestingly, in both the experiment and the survey, people with lower incomes who said that they used reappraisal techniques reported feeling less anxious as a result. This was not the case for middle- or upper-income participants.

According to Haase, this may be because people with higher incomes feel as though they have more control over their environment — and may have the resources to fix their own problem. Because of this, they wouldn’t have the need to reframe how they think about a situation.

So now that we know that this technique can help in a stressful money situation (like those weeks right after you’ve finished up your holiday shopping), how exactly do we go about reframing the way we’re thinking about our finances?

Stop avoiding the problem

If you’re in the habit of trying to frantically ignore the number on your credit card statement, start by acknowledging what is happening. Adam Fried, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Midwestern University, tells Thrive Global that avoidance only increases people’s anxiety over the long run, so the first step is to address avoidance behaviors.

Being mindful of exactly why you’re opting to avoid dealing with financial problems can also help you figure out the most effective ways to solve them. “Although avoidance may seem to immediately relieve worry and anxiety, research suggests that financial avoidance has been linked to increased emotional distress and conflict, especially among younger adults,” Fried explains.

Make a plan

“Addressing financial stressors can be difficult and overwhelming and many people aren’t sure where to begin,” Fried says. He recommends scheduling a manageable amount of time each day to take a microstep that helps get your finances in order. “In my work, I have found that prioritizing goals, identifying specific tasks, and committing to a realistic schedule where progress can be measured can be very helpful.”  

For example, this could mean identifying a money goal for the week and creating a consistent 30-minute daily block on the calendar where you can gradually work toward completing that weekly goal. By starting with tasks that are relatively simple to tackle, it helps you get used to thinking about financial issues. Once you get the ball rolling and start to see that you’re making progress, taking further steps becomes much easier. “In terms of increasing self-efficacy and confidence in their ability to handle finances, it can be helpful when people can see even small progress on their goals,” Fried adds.

Ask for help if you need it

Don’t assume that you have to face this stress alone. Talking to a trusted friend or loved one can help get you much-needed support.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic solution to anxiety about money, or anything else for that matter. But understanding how to reduce stress and reframe how we think about a situation can go a long way, and finances are no exception.

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