How to Beat Financial Stress in Trying Times

There’s a new stress in town called Acute Financial Stress (AFS). We’ve explored in previous coverage what we’ve come to understand about how people are traumatized by the money in their lives and the ways it affects everything from sleep and relationships to physical health and well-being.

One possible explanation for the outcomes we’ve discussed, from the decline in quality of life and financial security to subsequent self-medication and beyond, may be as tied to our expectations as they are to reality. Having come to expect a version of success that is more tied to an advertiser’s fantasy than a realistic financial view, we’re unprepared and damaged by the effects of our fragile economy, stagnant wages, ever increasing amount of debt and our inability to save. We may have expected to have a constant stream of options and upon discovering they don’t exist, we’re less willing or able to see the glass as half full.

In many ways, we’ve become a society that defines ourselves and others as the sum total of what we have, not who we are, and for those who have less than they need or had before, this is devastating. Self-perception breaks, rather than bends. Resilience is lost, along with our collective sense of security.

In light of these factors, expectation and entitlement seem to be two of the least useful attitudes we can develop. Their opposites, gratitude and generosity, are not only extremely functional approaches, but there is an increasing body of neuroscientific research, including imaging studies of the brain, demonstrating that developing these attitudes leads to significant enhancement of brain activity. People who show a more grateful approach to life have more active brains in several divergent regions. Specifically, gratitude seems to enhance the functioning of the anterior cingulate, a region of the brain that’s essential for many of the activities that distinguish us as humans, including understanding emotions and making effective decisions.

Gratitude Power

The good news for all of us is that by practicing gratitude — doing such simple things as identifying three things we appreciate every day, leads to seeing very rapid and long-lasting changes in how we feel and behave. Gratitude leads to optimism, less depression, increases in morale and well-being and more willpower. Gratitude leads to hope. It’s cognitively like having the glass perpetually half full.

However, when we approach life without gratitude — with the sense that we are owed something or that enough is never enough — we not only minimize our access to all of these positive aspects of the human experience, but we also set ourselves up for an even bigger cascade into isolation and anger. The loss of gratitude so often goes hand-in-hand with outright hostility toward others, notably those who differ from us and even more so toward those who may be vulnerable.

Without gratitude, our thinking becomes increasingly black and white, cornering us into more desperate and primitive thinking while the stress of an unrelenting and unforgiving economy renders many of us hopeless and powerless. With this comes a smaller and smaller sense of community that stands in stark contradiction to the kind that enabled my parents and millions of others to survive the Great Depression. Falling today, while so many others are falling too, means feeling as though there’s nothing left and nobody or nothing to grab onto.

Hope Floats

Yet many people survive and even thrive after unbelievably desperate situations. The human spirit seems indomitable, unless hope is lost. Hopelessness is not the subject of volumes of psychological research, but there are a number of patterns that seem to emerge when we think of who loses hope and who flourishes. This variable can be indicative of deep emotional reserves, or their absence.

In my own family, I think of how my father and his siblings spent their childhood during the Great Depression plagued by the stress of literally putting food on the table. Yet in spite of the hardships he’s endured — or perhaps because of them — my father is resolutely averse to debt, and as far as I know, the only debt he ever took on was buying our family farm in 1961. Land in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania went through an explosion in value, and many people jumped on the bandwagon of growth during the ‘70s, but not my father. He paid his bills and planned for the future, taking immense pride in buying an apartment in a Mennonite retirement community that assures he and my mother are taken care of, no matter what their needs are for the rest of their lives.

Thinking of my father’s family surviving the Depression after the loss of their breadwinner, invariably leads me to consider my paternal grandmother, who kept it all together when many others were unable to do so. This plain, pigeon-toed, bonneted woman exuded more than anything a sense of hope. While her hope was inextricably tied to her faith, it pervaded everything she did. During a time when so many people lost hope, she raised seven hopeful and healthy kids through the force of her will and hope borne of her community. What can we learn from experiences like those of my grandmother and millions of other people both then and now? After all, many people live with dignity and hope come rain or shine.

In watching our culture evolve, it does not seem implausible to hypothesize that brains on gratitude are increasingly diverging from those which have been stymied by stress, as are communities focused on threat and perceived loss. Gratitude seems pivotal in advancing the functioning of prefrontal circuits, those controlling executive functioning, abstract thinking, emotional recognition, even hope. The brain for the age of information can be argued to be kickstarted by gratitude. Conversely, stress of all sorts certainly including financial stress, strengthens the loop between the hippocampus and the amygdala further increasing the time the brain spends in a state of fight or flight. The time spent in fight or flight not only creates these self-reinforcing loops it also interferes with the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, so with chronic stress instead of hope we start to feel hopelessness.

The election of 2016 has brought many of us to a point of introspection as well as contemplation of what kind of world we live in. We see so many silos around us, the one percent, the red and the blue, the high and low information voters, the educated and uneducated. This series has not been written to minimize the effect or relevance of any of these variables. Rather, we hope to provide another lens through which we can view our community. By providing this model where everyone can do something as simple as saying “thank you” as a step toward helping ourselves be better prepared for whatever we may face we hope everyone will consider this option. 

Acknowledgements: This series would not have been completed without the input of Sarah Weissman who contributed from the conceptualization to the final editing stage. Research was sponsored entirely by the financial wellness company, Payoff. Thanks to CEO Scott Saunders for his foresight and compassion in realizing the importance of financial stress.


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