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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How to deal with financial trauma

Experiences like economic hardship or medical expenses can distort people’s feelings and behaviors around money, causing them to sabotage their financial futures.

By Juli Fraga

Rahkim Sabree owns a home in Hartford, Connecticut, invests and has money in savings. But that isn’t always enough to make him feel secure. Unexpected expenses, regardless of the cost, bring him discomfort.

“I get very anxious when I have to spend money,” Sabree, a 33-year-old financial coach and consultant, said. This sometimes causes him to postpone paying for necessities like new shoes or household repairs.

During his teenage years, Sabree, who is Black, lived with his family in subsidized housing and paid for groceries with food stamps. “When things got really bad, we went without electricity and water,” he said. More than once, they were nearly kicked out. Seeing an eviction notice on the door was embarrassing, Sabree recalled.

Those experiences shaped how he spends and saves. Feeling in control of his money brings peace, Sabree said. But when that control slips away, anxiety creeps in. “It feels like something is happening to me, instead of me making something happen,” he said.

Experiences like Sabree’s can lead to what financial psychologists call “financial trauma” — an intense and enduring emotional response to current or past financial distress, said Alex Melkumian, a psychologist and the founder of the Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles.

Financial trauma can cause negative thoughts, flashbacks and anxiety — symptoms that mirror post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Unlike everyday stress, trauma doesn’t wax and wane. It ends up injuring your relationship with money, said Thomas Faupl, a financial therapist in San Francisco.

Unlike PTSD, financial trauma is not a mental health diagnosis, so financial advisers and therapists often overlook it. Many people are never told that scary experiences involving money can hurt their financial and psychological health, Faupl said. Despite this, a 2016 survey found that 25% of Americans, including 36% of millennials, reported symptoms of PTSD caused by financial distress.

Recognize stress signals

One telltale sign of financial trauma is money avoidance, Melkumian said. In other words, some traumatized people might refuse to create a budget, open their bills or discuss their finances.

Avoidance can also mean neglecting to spend when you should. For example, Sabree used to chalk his behavior up to frugality. But he realized that unlike saving for a rainy day, his choices were sometimes driven by a desire to avoid another brush with poverty.

Any painful experience involving money can make you feel unsafe, said Aja Evans, a financial therapist in New York City. This often leads to negative thoughts, she explained, such as “I’ll never have enough money” or “I’ll never be good with money.”

Overspending can also be evidence of financial trauma. You might try to compensate for feeling deprived as a child by overindulging as an adult. For instance, you could blow your savings on a vacation, eat out too much or spend all your money shopping online.

Chantel Chapman, a 40-year-old entrepreneur in Richmond, British Columbia, was once a spendthrift in this way. For nearly a decade, she bought gifts, outfits and dinners that she couldn’t afford, she said. This left her with nearly $10,000 in credit card debt and $10,000 in tax debt, which hindered her savings.

Like Sabree, Chapman grew up without financial security. But while Sabree’s financial trauma made him frugal, Chapman’s resulted in overspending.

“I had a lopsided relationship with money,” she said. Chapman said that she feared debt but that her desire to belong with a wealthier crowd had made her spend beyond her means. Trauma turned her into a people pleaser, she said, adding, “I thought I had to look a certain way to be accepted.”

Look out for triggers

Any thought, feeling or memory paired with the trauma can trigger distress. For example, if you lost money during the 2008 financial crisis, seeing the stock market tumble can produce anxiety. Or if you’re saddled with student loan debt, the end of the payment pause may be unnerving.

“It can feel like watching a scary movie all over again,” said Michelle Griffith, a senior wealth adviser at Citi Personal Wealth Management.

When the emotional tide is high, Griffith recommends letting facts drive decision-making. “Even bear markets rebound,” she said. And for the past 70 years, the stock market has fallen 5% several times each year. Knowing that dips are temporary can help ease the sting, Griffith said.

While no one can predict the future, being able to spot your triggers puts you in a better position to take care of yourself, Evans said. Even taking a few deep breaths, going for a walk or talking with a friend is calming, making it less likely that you’ll resort to impulsive actions, she said.

Establish financial boundaries

Boundaries help us feel safe in relationships, and they can keep our financial behaviors in check, too.

For example, Evans recommends that overspenders remove credit cards from apps and online stores. The thrill of a purchase provides a dopamine rush, which can hamper your self-control, she said. But if your credit card isn’t handy, it’s harder to indulge.

People who avoid money can take tiny risks, such as pushing themselves to spend $10 or $20 on a joyful experience. Melkumian calls this “mandatory splurging,” and said it was one way to step out of your safe zone. It’s doing the opposite of what the negative emotion is telling you to do, he said.

Any behavior that intercepts avoidance is also beneficial. Griffith suggested setting up automatic transfers of money from your checking account to your savings each month. You can also automate your monthly bill payments and allocate funds from each paycheck to your retirement account.

Find support

Recovering from financial trauma is a two-pronged approach. You need to address the financial aspect as well as the trauma that caused it, Faupl said.

Talking with a financial therapist who specializes in financial trauma is the first step. With a background in psychology and money, the financial therapist can help you understand the relationship between your painful experience and your financial issues. For instance, if your family fought about money when you were a child, Faupl said, you might avoid difficult financial conversations as an adult. Or if you grew up without financial security, you may hoard money later in life.

In addition to therapy, taking a financial literacy class or speaking with a financial adviser can set you up for success.

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