The Link Between Mental Health Stress and Money
Although we can’t simply “wish” away our money challenges or magically make money appear in our bank accounts, how we think about money problems can have a huge impact on our daily living experience.
How do we know this? Research into cognitive behavioral therapy has long established that our thoughts become feelings, and our feelings ultimately become behaviors. If you think negatively, your mood and actions will reflect that.
In short, you are what you think.
Broadly speaking, simply changing your negative thoughts into more balanced and productive thoughts can lead to more positive feelings and behaviors.  It’s likely you’ve had certain thoughts about yourself and your relationship to money for many years and changing them can often feel challenging or even impossible.
Here’s the good news: you’ve wired your brain to think a certain way about money, which means you can rewire it in the future. So how does this rewiring process work?
Paradoxically, it starts with stopping.
1. Stop Negative Thoughts
The stop-thought technique has long been helpful in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This technique simply says when you notice yourself having a negative thought, stop having that thought and replace it with a more productive thought. By holding space for more productive and balanced thoughts, this can lead to more balanced feelings and behaviors.
For example, say these sentences out loud and notice how you feel saying them:
“I’m in trouble.” “I don’t have enough.” “I’m terrible with money.” “I hate myself for even being in this position.”
Now, say these more productive sentences out loud and notice how you feel:
“I’m resilient and have survived every challenge in life.” “Here’s what I have today.” “Right now this is hard but I know things will change.” “This situation is reminding me what I value and where I want to be instead.”
Saying these more positive sentences won’t change the reality of your financial needs, but it can definitely change how you approach the problem. When you’re less stressed and in a better frame of mind, that often opens new paths of curiosity about a problem which can lead to new and unexpected solutions.
The next step is getting honest with yourself about where you’re at.
2. Own Your Feelings
It’s hard to be vulnerable. It’s hard to say you hurt, or feel isolated, sad, anxious, or depressed.
A strange thing happens though when I finally get my therapy clients to voice their fears and own them: although the process is usually emotionally intense, a sense of peace often comes over them and their thought patterns and behaviors begin changing soon after.
I see it all the time in my therapy practice – whether it’s individuals, couples, or families – once people can openly own their feelings, a curious optimism begins visiting them. What was once hidden on the inside is now forever on the outside. Feeling seen and heard, as opposed to internalizing your feelings, can do wonders for your mental health.
Naming your fears and owning your feelings lets you honestly express your emotions instead of denying that they’re having an effect on you. While it might seem uncomfortable, awkward, or even embarrassing to say you’re struggling with money stress, once you open up about your struggles, others can feel more comfortable sharing how they’ve been struggling, too.
Abacus advisor Rasheed Ahmed adds, “Once we can name people’s fears and establish a clear plan, they feel empowered and you can see their shoulders drop a little, their smiles widen. They might go from being terse to conversational. Since it can be tense for clients to confront their money, once we have a game plan, I notice an uptick in their humor.”
How many people do you know are struggling with their relationship to money? And yet, how many of those same people actually and openly talk about these struggles?
The stress of not talking about the problem – this negative energy – has to have an outlet somewhere in your life. Sometimes it comes out in anger and blame. Other times it comes out in unhealthy behaviors, such as eating or drinking too much, or low self-worth and esteem.
If you’ve found yourself unable to talk about money stress in the past, where does this energy manifest in you?
To help alleviate this energy and make your interior life less stressful, it’s important to know how to articulate it.
3. Name the Problem
Solution-focused and Narrative therapy often say, “You are not the problem. The problem is the problem.”
Too often, we think of ourselves as the problem, which makes it easier to get down on ourselves or our financial situation. By naming the problem, this can help remove yourself from the equation so you can gain more clarity about how the problem affects your life.
This is no different with financial challenges. Let’s say for a long time you’ve not been able to save money and you blame yourself. “I’m terrible at saving money. I’m never going to be any good at it.” What kinds of feelings and behaviors do you think these thoughts will transform into?
What if instead you could name this problem as something outside of yourself? What would you call this problem? Is it the ‘expectations’ problem’? The ‘not having enough’ problem? What would it feel like to name the problem as a color, a weather pattern, or a character? The Gray Blob, the Financial Storm Cloud, or the Money Phantom that raids my bank account and robs me of happiness?
Notice how you feel when you say this statement: “I’m terrible at saving money. I’m never going to be any good at it.”
Now notice how you feel when you say it this way: “The Money Phantom is robbing me of my happiness. But I don’t have to let the Money Phantom rob me.”
Even if the Money Phantom sounds silly, you are no longer aiming blame and negative talk at yourself. By reframing the problem as the culprit instead of you, you free yourself from the burden of self-inflicted blame and judgment.
4. Play the ‘Opposite Game’
As an experiment to combat the problem of money stress, what would it look like to play the ‘Opposite Game’ for a day?
Imagine for every negative thought you have surrounding money, you simply say the opposite. “I’m broke” becomes “Here’s what I do have.” Or “Today is really terrible” becomes “What’s one small thing today that’s good?”
What small everyday things are in your power to change? These adjustments don’t have the power to solve all of your financial problems, but they do have the power to help you cope with those problems in a more productive, compassionate, less corrosive way.
Even in the darkest of financial moments, the only thing you can realistically change is how you approach your feelings towards it.
5. Reframe Your Life
Holding on to stress and anxiety eats away at your wellbeing and happiness. Is this how you prefer to live? What will it feel like to approach money stress differently by owning your feelings and naming the problem instead of internalizing it?
Using these simple tools can help you reframe your approach to money anxieties. It won’t automatically solve all of your financial worries, but the strength and resiliency you gain from learning how to navigate them better can be a welcome change for your mental and money health.
Abacus advisors love exploring money stories with clients. If you are ready to make a change in your money life, reach out and schedule a free call with an Abacus advisor today.
1. American Psychological Association. (2022, October). Stress in America. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress
2. Hofmann, S., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I., Sawyer, A., & Fang, A. (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3584580/