This post originally comes from an answer to a post in the #emotional-courage-and-mental-health Courage Conversations thread.
A community member asked a great question the other day. She writes:
Lately I've really been struggling with anxiety, specifically around finances.
I would love to be secure within myself regardless of my bank account, and I would also love my bank account to be at a good place by the time we move. Mostly, I would love to not be obsessively thinking about money right now.
This is something I can strongly relate to and it prompted a lengthy response that I now share here.
Financial worries were the thing that plagued me the longest! I feel I only really made big strides in this department as recently as Fall of 2019.
I still don't have financial security - or at least the kind of situation that would make me feel TRULY secure - but I think 2020 showed us that security is an ILLUSION at any level. Did anyone ever think the entire global economy would shut down? I certainly didn't!
But let's take a look at our actual individual cases - yes, lots of people lost a lot of money or didn't make enough money - I don't want to diminish any of the hard struggles that so many people have had to go through.
Yet at the same time, if you're reading this then you've done well enough financially to be able to afford continuing to invest in personal development. In other words, if you're in the Courage Community, you're not destitute. You're not starving. You're not in the kind of financial trouble that is deeply serious or physically harmful.
So the first step is gratitude and recognition that AS BAD AS YOU HAVE EVER FELT ABOUT FINANCES the reality is that you're doing "ok", and you're unlikely to do terribly unless you start making really big, dumb decisions.
And that's not even factoring in the social safety net that many modern countries have. Loans, grants, unemployment benefits, stimulus checks (never thought I'd see that happen!), etc.
I believe it was the comedian Jeff Foxworth (the "you might be a redneck if..." guy) or at least someone on his comedy tour, that said "we're all just a few bad decisions away from working at Wall-Mart for the rest of our lives!"...
...and while this is a funny joke, I think it perpetuates the kinds of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that make us worry unnecessarily about things that we actually have under a decent amount of control.
The Pandy showed that in actuality it takes even MORE than a global economic shutdown to send everyone back to low-income jobs, let alone remove all chance of future career improvements.
In other words - if you live in a modernized country with a social safety net and you've been where you're economically at for a while, it's going to take something as bad as a long-term drug addiction to really ruin your life.
That takes care of any CATASTROPHIC thinking that might creep in. All the "if I don't do something about this I could end up on the street! or I'll be one of those old ppl that's forced to eat cat food because I didn't save up enough for my retirement!"
HIGHLY UNLIKELY I'd say, and I also say that recent events are evidence of the unlikeliness of catastrophic personal financial failure.
So - to me - that takes care of the WORST fears. But perhaps you didn't have the worst ones so all of this so far isn't resonating. Well, I'm not done yet! I just like to start with the worst case and work my way backwards to reality.
If we're not afraid of becoming homeless or going hungry, then what EXACTLY are we actually afraid of?
This is the question worth meditating on (and by that I mean "thinking long and deeply about it").
How much do you need to pay all your bills and put food on the table?
Are you making at least that much?
If yes, then are you only worried about the future?
If no, then something needs to change in the short term. But dwelling on fear or worry will be an unhelpful waste of time. Instead, time should be spent looking for new/better employment, looking for side work, networking, strategizing, etc.
In other words, if you're not making enough money to support yourself in the present then it's not time to sit and worry, it's time to get to work on finding better work! No time for worry and fear right now, only time for action!
For this post though, I'll assume that you DO have enough money for bills and food, and this is mainly a concern about how much money you will/won't have in the future.
A favorite quotes that you might be familiar with:
"Worry is like paying interest in advance on a debt that never comes due"
(there are slightly different variations attributed to Mark Twain and David Mamet)
I love that one - and pretty appropriate for financial worries.
Whenever we worry we use up mental resources. We pay a cost for worrying in both energy expenditure and time that could be spent better.
And the biggest problem is that the worrying NEVER HELPS! Worrying about the issue unnecessarily never actually leads to a solution that STOPS the worry!
That's how we can tell that the worry is waste of time. So why do we persist with it?
Here's my opinion: We worry about things even when the worrying doesn't actually help us, because deep down we believe that WE MUST THINK ABOUT THE PROBLEM OR ELSE OUR WORST FEARS WILL COME TRUE
We believe that our THOUGHTS THEMSELVES are holding back whatever vague fears we have attached to the source of the worry. That if we ceased to think about our fears, THEN they would come true.
We've told ourselves a story that the VALUE of worrying is essentially the same as wearing a good luck charm - something to ward off the bad spirits that wish to cause us trouble.
In other words, our persistent worrying is merely SUPERSTITION!
And it's a superstition that we can easily prove to be unjustified. Ask yourself when worrying has actually prevented the SPECIFIC bad thing you feared from happening.
For me, it never has! Either I worried APPROPRIATELY about something that caused me to take an action to successfully mitigate the source of the worry, thus preventing it from coming to pass and restoring me to a relaxed state.
OR (more often) I worried EXCESSIVELY about something for which I already took all the actions under my control and could take no further action - meaning the thing I was in fear of was ALREADY addressed and did not come to pass. Especially not in it's most fearsome form.
What usually happens to us when things go wrong, is that we're impacted by the things we NEVER ACTUALLY CONSIDERED!
We get surprised! We get blindsided! Life throws us a curveball that we never saw coming and therefore no amount of worry would have helped!
In other words, we worry most about the things we should worry least about... assuming you've already done everything in your power to realistically mitigate the worry.
Ok - so now we can see that ALL undue worry is merely an expression of ineffectual superstition. Ineffectual superstitions aren't so bad if they have no cost - where's the problem with knocking on wood or throwing a pinch of salt over your shoulder for example? But we've already shown that worry requires you to pay a HIGH cost. So this is one superstition that we should truly work to remove.
To summarize so far:
Catastrophic failure is highly unlikely, so don't think catastrophically.
Worry without action is merely superstition. Take the actions necessary to mitigate your worries, and then begin to accept what you cannot control.
This brings us to some ACTION STEPS
#1 - the Tim Ferriss "Fear Setting Exercise"
or any similar CBT-style exercise. I have a few CBT worksheets under my bonus content section in the Cave: https://diretto.customerhub.net/mike
What Tim advises is to "do the work of worrying". In other words, sit down and make your worries real, realistic, and concrete. Whenever we have a VAGUE fear we give it far more power than it should have. Vague troublesome emotions have much more strength than specific ones. Because the more specific something is, the better we can address it and improve the situation.
So we start by defining our fears - then we ask what would happen if they came true - and then we make a plan for how we would get back to "baseline" in the event that happens.
Doing this or a similar exercise helps show you where you are being catastrophic, unrealistic, or unclear. It also gives you confidence that you have at least started thinking about a real-world solution to your worries.
And as I've already shown above - once this is done, worry has ceased to serve it's healthy purpose. Now that your worries have made you sit down and make a plan they have been transformed into action steps and your focus must shift to taking action, not wasting additional time on mental masturbation (sometimes it feels good to worry doesn't it? lying to ourselves that all those thoughts have special power to protect us).
I'm a ruminator - I tend to think about the same things in circles over and over again. But something that has ALWAYS helped me has been WRITING or RECORDING my thoughts.
Once I get them out of my head and onto some permanent media my brain says to itself "oh, well those thoughts are OVER THERE if I need them, no need to waste more time on them b/c I can just read what I wrote"
That's another benefit of doing written exercises like this. THE WRITING PART IS CRUCIAL! (typing is fine in my book too, and if it's something that I don't think I'll refer to often then audio recording has also worked well for me)
This is just another version of mental reframing - taking the negative feelings/thoughts, examining them for veracity (or truth in relation to reality), helpfulness, and compassion, and where necessary, editing the narrative to allow them to encourage healthy responses.
So that's action step #1 - do the work, write it out
But if I'm being 100% honest, this is NOT the step that gave me my most recent breakthrough. I've done exercise like this a variety of times and they always help to temporarily turn the dial down on my worries... but at least in the specific area of financial concerns they were never a solution to preventing the worries from popping back into my head and stealing my time and presence.
What actually worked for me was Action Step #2 - PRACTICE IGNORING THE THOUGHTS
Why did I write this HUGE reply? Because before I can ask you to ignore your thoughts I had to show that there would not be any negative consequence to doing so.
Fact 1: The true worst case scenario - death or homelessness - is highly unlikely
Fact 2: We know worrying is harmful
Fact 3: We know worrying is not helpful once we've taken action around it
From these facts we've shown that additional worry beyond action is merely superstition, magical thinking, or mental masturbation. It's a bad habit that we fell into at a younger age and haven't been able to shake off.
But how many of us have actually committed to attempting to DELETE these unhelpful thoughts?
We all say we want to worry less, but how many of us decide to MAKE A RULE that we are NO LONGER ALLOWED to think these things?
That is what finally worked for me!
Think about the last time you had a horrible judgement pop into your head randomly about someone, ideally a stranger. You're just walking along minding your own business and maybe you see someone of a different race, economic status (like a bum), or anything that triggers you into having some really shitty, totally uneducated thought about that person ("that bum must be a lazy person, they probably deserve to be on the street" for example).
What do you do?
You do the mental equivalent of smacking your hand away from the cookie jar!
"NO MIKE! BAD THOUGHT! DON'T THINK THAT! ... QUICK! THINK OF SOMETHING ELSE!"
And we do that relatively easily because we are ALREADY CONVINCED of the harmfulness of the initial thought and we realize that ANY other thought is better than dwelling on the darkest parts of our nature.
I hope that by this point in my reply you're similarly convinced of the harmfulness of worry.
I believe that when viewed realistically, financial worries easily fall into the category of negative thoughts that can be summarily dismissed on face, without even needing to re-frame them into a more positive pattern.
That's the difference between Action Step 1 and this one. Step 1 is the full reframing process. Step 2 is realizing we don't even need to do that and we can just use ANY method of pattern interrupting to stop that train of thought and begin to ignore it.
Here's what I actually did to achieve my breakthrough about financial worries in 2019:
#1 - I went through all the thoughts I've written out here, and got myself a strong, logical argument for why everything would still be ok if I could somehow bring myself to stop worrying so much.
#2 - I SET A TIME LIMIT. I said "Ok, today is September 1st. For the next 3 MONTHS I will REFUSE to allow myself to dwell on worrying thoughts that have to do with finances".
Setting the time limit makes the process easier b/c if your bad belief is that worrying prevents harm, your subconscious/ego can say "ok well I don't see why we're doing this but at least this isn't permanent. It's just an experiment. And soon they will see that the worrying we've been doing all along is correct and we'll just go back to normal... so it's ok to let them try this out."
Yes - you are bargaining with your subconscious as if it were another being. It helps get shit done!
How long should your time limit be? I chose 3 months because in the past I had gotten busy enough a few times to actually not check on my finance stuff (I have spreadsheets for forecasting and etc) for that long. So I already knew that NOTHING CATASTROPHIC could happen in a 3 month time frame. It was also lengthy enough for me to actually experience a difference, if a difference was there to be experienced.
#3 - I told my support network about my plan.
In this case it was pretty much just @Coach Lilly Diretto because I knew she'd be around me the most often and was most keenly aware of my struggles.
I said "for the next 3 months I am not allowed to worry about finances. If I bring them up, shoot me down. If you see my looking worried, ask me what's up, and if I say it's about money please help me change my mind"
I also told her specifically what to do to break me out of the thought pattern...
#4 - I began practicing ignoring the thoughts by leveraging common interrupts:
Most frequently I would use listening to other people talk as my primary method for stopping my own thoughts.
I'd put on a podcast, TV show, movie, audio book, etc. I'm sure reading would have worked just as well for this but it's easier for me to switch on audio and keep doing whatever else I was doing than to sit down and read.
My second most frequent - though perhaps MORE powerful - tool was to TELL LILLY "I'm thinking about money right now". Usually simply blurting that out would be enough to give me a boost of mental discipline. I'd say what was on my mind, she would offer me support and sympathy, and before she could even remind me to go listen to a podcast I was already moving my fingers towards the buttons.
After those two there are:
1. Exercise - the more I exercise the less I worry in general
2. Sex - a pretty damn great pattern interrupt!
3. Sometimes CBD or cannabis or at least avoiding coffee
4. Getting proper sleep is similar to exercise in helping our thoughts not get the better of us
5. A bit of pain can be effective for bringing us back into the present moment - a quick slap to your own thigh or biting your lip can work
6. Music - either just listening or better yet, playing an actual instrument
7. Meditation - should probably be higher on the list but I tend to use sex, music, or exercise as meditation rather than sitting
8. Doing chores - chores relax me and give me a feeling of accomplishment/dopamine release
9. If things are REALLY bad perhaps a temporary prescription for medication is in order - but if you want it to actually be temporary don't take it just to treat the symptom, use it to demonstrate to your brain the desired state. In other words, combine meds with one of the interventions above to make establishing the pattern of ignoring the worry easier and train your brain to EXPECT to feel relaxed by doing said intervention.
Example: Combine a 20 minute exercise routine with a low dose anti-anxiety med while keeping your primary focus on the exercise. By the time you're done with your routine, the meds have kicked in and you are definitely in a calmer state.
The hope is (and by the way, this is NOT medical advice, I am not a medical professional, always consult a licensed professional and don't trust the singular opinion of any one source when it comes to important health issues!) that since the exercise required more focus and energy investment than taking the med, your brain will give more credit to the exercise for the calm feeling you feel afterwards. Making the pavlovian response (exercise = calm) easier to establish.
It's not medicine (or I guess that could be debatable...) but I've done this with scotch! LOL. Since I ONLY drink scotch in the evenings when I'm winding down for the night, now I associate relaxation with the taste of scotch. I don't need to get buzzed to feel the effect - I can smell scotch and instantly feel more relaxed.
Clearly, there are potential negative side effects whenever we use substances as crutches, which is why I would reserve a strategy like this only for very persistent issues and only after consulting your doctor.
I also strongly believe in the ability of anti-depressant medication to save lives. I've seen it first hand and no one should be afraid of asking for medical help if they are struggling. In my case, my ex GF needed to go on them for 6 months to break herself out of a severe and dangerous depression. She then weened herself off and lived without the meds for a while until she experienced post-partum depression after the birth of her first child. However, now that she was able to recognize the depression and knew there was a solution she returned again to the meds quickly before she could harm herself or her kid, and got off them again when the danger had passed.
To Sum Up:
Worrying SUCKS! We all know this and we all wish we could do it less.
Sometimes all we have to do is take the time to sit down and get very clear with ourselves about what we are truly afraid of, and what we realistically have to do to prevent or mitigate our concerns. Sometimes that is enough for the more rational parts of our brain to regain control and let go of the unnecessary emotions.
Other times, no amount of reasoning is actually helpful. Especially since we know on some level security is always an illusion. Pandemics, asteroids, or giant lightning-breathing lizards could strike at any moment and lay waste to the best-laid plans of mice and men.
In those times it's better to practice accepting what we cannot control, and ignore the unhelpful emotional responses that arise from our existential dread.
:Bearwolf: It's OK to put on your favorite album instead of worrying about money.
:Bearwolf: It's OK to do some Tabata sprints instead of feeling vaguely concerned about the future.
:Bearwolf: It's OK to starve the dread of energy until it withers and dies
Oh! I almost forgot the conclusion of my story!
So what happened to me after 3 months of refusing to allow myself to worry about money?
Well MUCH SOONER than 3 months in, the FEELING OF NOT WORRY WAS SO POSITIVE and had improved my life so much, that I said to myself "even if ignoring these fears DID cause bad things to happen - it would be worth it!"
I felt so good NOT worrying, that I committed to maintain it as best I could. I proved to myself that not worrying DID NOT, in fact, bring more harm to my life. I proved to myself through firsthand experience that worrying WAS NOT helping me at all. And once I got out from underneath the worry for long enough to see this it made it A LOT easier to KEEP IGNORING as my main course of action.
At first I said "well I'll do another 3 months" because I still had to bargain with my ego. But by now I am no longer plagued by financial concerns, especially about the future (my biggest fears were about retiring with enough money).
And here's the thing - for the first year after this breakthrough - 2020 - my finances were under a much greater threat than they'd been under before. But my worries did not increase - they continued to lessen. And it's only been in recent months of 2021 where I even was able to take action on planning for my retirement/investing.
And then as soon as I took action on my investment plan, it kind of tanked a bit! Lol. My crypto folks know what I'm talking about.
But I'm still not concerned. In fact I'm happier that I've taken SOME action than nothing even if that action is yet to pay off.
So that's my story and my advice. I hope it made sense and resonated with you, and I hope you can use it successfully in your life as well. Let me know if you have any questions!