07 Dec 2020 • 6mins • Gemma Fisher

Facing up to your financial fears - with Dr Emma Hepburn

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Facing up to your financial fears, with Dr Emma Hepburn
Financial fears freaking you out? Here's how to face them down

There’s something big and scary behind the door. We know it’s there, but opening the door to face it is terrifying. It creates so much fear that when we glance into the room the fear overtakes us. It’s just too overwhelming and we have no idea how to deal with it, so we shut the door as quickly as possible to put a barrier between us and the big scary thing and stop the fear overtaking our lives. Nevertheless, we know that the fearful, terrifying thing is still there, sitting and growing behind that door, waiting to pounce when we least expect it. It seems like we are trapped in a no-win situation, as even when we do our best to ignore it the fear it sits in our mind taking up brain space.

Our finances can feel exactly like the scary thing behind the door, when they feel out of control and unmanageable. The most natural thing in the world is to run away or avoid something that makes us feel anxious or scared. In the short term this appears to work, shutting it away reduces our anxiety and we feel relief. But in the longer term it is actually counterproductive.

Not only do our anxieties get bigger, but the stress itself grows. The more we avoid them the more our finances feel - and actually become - out of control. The shame we often feel about the financial mess behind the door can create negative feelings that impact on our mood, stress levels and how we view ourselves.

Facing up to anything scary is never easy, and inevitably creates difficult feelings as we attempt to tackle the things we have been doing our best to avoid. But the benefits of getting control and managing the situation are endless.

Here are some ways you can tackle your financial fears and sort out the scary thing behind the door.

Start small, with realistic expectations
If you've been avoiding your finances for a long time, you may feel anxiety when you start opening the door. Anxiety feels unpleasant and uses your energy and resources, so you want your body to only experience this in small manageable doses. Expecting to sort everything in one go is unrealistic and is likely to lead to more anxiety. So start small.

Meeting these realistic expectations will give you a sense of achievement which will motivate you to tackle the next part. If it feels like you have achieved nothing, remind yourself that small achievements build quickly into big achievements. Using goal-setting techniques can help you break this down into small manageable tasks to help you reach your goal.

Anticipation is usually worse than the situation itself
Before you face a fear, your brain’s predicting there is something to feel anxious about. However, usually when you start facing your fear in a gradual way, your brain learns that it is not as bad as predicted. The thought is usually worse than the thing itself.

If you have been feeling worried about this for a long time, it takes time and persistence to help your brain make better predictions and reduce the anticipatory anxiety it feels. And pushing through this to keep going can be hard. Remind yourself that it is unlikely to be as bad as your think, that your anxiety will reduce once you start, and that gradually the more you do it, the less scary it will feel.

Have empathy for yourself
Facing things we’ve avoided can make us feel shameful and bad. It’s fodder for your inner critic. However having someone (in this case your own brain) shout nasty and belittling comments to you is extremely stressful and demotivating, which means you are more likely to give up. Try instead to speak to yourself with compassion. Step back from your own situation and consider what you’d say to someone else in the same situation, as this will normally be far kinder and compassionate. Try to nurture this compassion towards yourself in the knowledge this is far more helpful and motivating.

Keep the focus on achievements
Our brain is automatically drawn to the negative, and it will really want to focus on all the things you haven’t done yet or the scary still to-do pile. Make a conscious effort to refocus your attention onto what you have achieved. Write an achievement list (I like to call this a "ta-da" list) every time you tackle a small goal and draw your attention back to your achievements if you get pulled towards the negative.

Facing up to your financial fears, with Dr Emma Hepburn
Do your finances leave you cowering? Here's how to overcome that fear

Find ways to manage the difficult feelings
You are highly likely to experience some difficult feelings when tackling something you’ve been fearful of. Find practical ways to manage these feelings, which could include breathing exercises, mindfulness exercises, motivating statements or just getting up and dancing when your body feels stressed. It’s about finding the techniques that work for you. Whatever they are, having practical tools can help you feel more in control and able to manage the difficult feelings.

Do something fun while you are doing it
Doing something you enjoy while completing an unpleasant task can help make it easier. For example, you could listen to a podcast or play uplifting music. In addition, planning an enjoyable activity to look forward to when you’ve achieved your small goals can be a great motivator.

Tackle shame head on
Feeling shameful can make us want to hide our emotions and not speak about the things which trigger shame. Research suggests this leads to an increase in difficult feelings. Tackle your thoughts about shame head on. Use your compassionate voice, question the validity of these negative thoughts, and look at how much you’re blaming yourself. Remember that in reality there are normally multiple factors which contribute to any situation.

Ask for help, and take it!
We often see asking for help as a failure and this can be particularly difficult if we feel shameful about a situation. However getting the help of someone you trust can be beneficial in so many ways. As well as practically helping with the task, they provide extra brain space that can help you come up with other problem-solving ideas. They can lift you up and motivate you, and they may also be able to offer advice on technology or online tools that can help you manage your finances better too. We all need help at times, and rather than a failure, help can be seen as a form of active coping that enables you tackle difficult things more effectively.