De-Stress Yourself: Expert Tips for Coping With Financial Anxiety

This probably won't come as much of a shock to you, but Americans are stressed. And while that condition has plenty of sources, if you're not wealthy, the odds are good that some of your chief stressors involve your financial situation. For this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp are joined by Pete Shalek, the co-founder and CEO of Joyable, which he describes as not just an app, but an end-to-end mental-health solution that helps people improve their emotional well-being.

In this segment, they talk tactics: What can people actually do to reduce the stress they feel over their financial situations?

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Feb. 6, 2018.

Pete Shalek: When it begins to impair your life is the point at which people recommend that you get help. This is very loosely defined, but when people talk about clinical anxiety, clinical depression; usually what they mean is that it's begun to impair your life and the quality of your life. Everyone feels anxious. When being anxious makes it so you have presenteeism and you can't get your work done -- or when being anxious makes it so you don't let your kid out -- that's a time when you want to invest in this and consciously take steps to improve so you can achieve the things you want to achieve.

Robert Brokamp: I remember it was explained to me as almost like a courtroom, where you have sides presenting evidence. When you have something that you're anxious about, to really look at it as how likely is it that that is going to happen?

Shalek: Absolutely.

Brokamp: Sure, it's likely. Absolutely. And you should take some precaution against it. But to let something that has a 1-2% chance of happening run your life, then it's probably not the healthiest way to go about it.

Shalek: Absolutely. The interesting thing is sometimes when people hear about changing your thoughts, their initial reaction is, "Oh, I'm supposed to delude myself. I'm supposed to just think happy thoughts." In reality, CBT is about seeing things more rationally. It's not about saying, "There's no risk to my daughter" or "there's no risk to my financials." It's to say, "This is what's actually the risk, this is what I can do about it, and here's what happens if things go good or bad."

It's just about creating a more objective view of the world, and like you said, very much like a courtroom. I often think of it as lawyering my thoughts. I'm going to analyze them, I'm going to break them down, and I'm going to say, "Is this true?" That allows you to approach them more objectively.

Alison Southwick: I'm sure there's a fair amount of confidentiality with people who come to Joyable for help, but are you able to talk about what some of the more common anxieties that you guys hear about? And what are some things people can do?

Shalek: We are fully HIPAA compliant, so of course I can't speak about people individually. I can speak in general terms. We see quite a bit of concern about money. Quite a bit of concern about financial wellness and particularly, as you pointed out, the growing inequality. People who have more money sometimes are stressed about having more money and people who have less money obviously are dealing with the difficulties of that. That's probably the No. 1 thing we see a lot of.

And the No. 2 thing we see a lot of is relationships. Concern about people feeling isolated, or having difficulties with their spouse, or with their children, or something like that. We help folks through the anxiety of how they manage their relationships.

Southwick: I went through the app, and it lets you do some self-diagnosis for what you feel like you need help with. The app was, "It sounds like you need help with focus and breaking the cycle of avoidance action."

Shalek: Did you feel like it was right?

Southwick: Yes, that was the most spot-on for me. I'm a generally optimistic, happy, low-stress person. This is not bragging. I've got a good life. I'm very lucky and #blessed and all that stuff. But yes, and when I saw this I was like, "Oh, I need to Slack Bro. Hey, Bro, check out some tactics for your avoidance actions." Because you recognize that as a thing you have to overcome.

Brokamp: Which one? Avoidance? I mean, there are so many things.

Southwick: Distraction at work. Like being distracted by so many things.

Brokamp: Oh, yes.

Southwick: But to your point about how everyone could use help from cognitive behavioral therapy, this is one of those things that could help everyone who can't, say, focus at work.

Brokamp: Right. And I've mentioned before in the podcast, that I'm an "awfulizer." I'm always afraid of the worst-case scenario. And my wife, who has experience as a cognitive behavioral therapist, has said to me that this is what you do. You ask yourself what the worst-case scenario is, and you think about it. And No. 1, how likely is that really to happen, and No. 2, would it be OK if it happened? Would you still survive? Would the important things still be there?

For me, at least when it comes to money, I'd lose my job, and I wouldn't be able to get a new job, and I'd have to spend all our retirement savings...

Southwick: Are you worried about losing your job?

Brokamp: I have in the past. I have in the past.

Southwick: Everybody at home, send your letters to and let him know how much you want to save Bro. We'll start the campaign.

Shalek: Bro, you have my support.

Brokamp: Thank you, Pete. Earlier, Pete and I were talking about the history of The Motley Fool, and we've mentioned it before on the podcast. When I joined, we had almost 200 people. We went over to 400 people and then we dropped to 70 people, so it's not like it's impossible for a company to go out of business. We've seen it in the past. Again, it's not an irrational thought, but how likely is that to happen? How likely is it that I lose my job? And if it happened, would I find another job? Chances are probably yes. My life would not end.

Shalek: One great hack that you can use to help you think through those particular thoughts is to imagine a friend was going through what I'm going through. What would I tell that friend? Because we're much meaner to ourselves than we are to anybody else, and you would never say to somebody else, "You're going to lose your job and you're going to burn through your retirement," both because it's not true and because the things we say to ourselves are much harsher. So if you think through it in terms of speaking to somebody else, it can help objectify the things you're going through so you can work through them in a more rational way.

Southwick: So, avoidance actions. These are an issue for both Bro and me, but I'm sure we're the only ones in the world who are suffering from this. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get on Facebook really quick while you answer.

Shalek: Exactly. When your computer is up it makes me nervous. It's interesting. There's a famous psychologist in the 20th century -- a guy named Hobart Mowrer -- who had a theory that the root of all anxiety is avoidance. The basic premise of his theory is that we're all creatures of habit formation and that anxiety and avoidance becomes a pattern of habit formation. When you feel anxious, you avoid the thing that makes you anxious, and then you feel less anxious, which reinforces the action of avoiding.

Let's say you're supposed to prepare for a podcast and you're feeling anxious about doing it, so instead you go on The New York Times or on Facebook and that makes you not feel anxious because you're no longer thinking about the podcast. That makes it so you feel better, and that reinforces that behavior.

The challenge of what exists today is that it's easier to avoid things than it's ever been before. We have more distractions. More information. You cannot just read the newspaper in the morning. You can read 17 different sources 12 times a day. I'm sort of conscious of this. I don't know if anyone else does this, but there are times where I'll be working, have opened a tab, and I'll be on The New York Times before I've consciously realized that I'm doing it.

Brokamp: Yeah.

Shalek: Because I'm avoiding the behavior, and I've reinforced that over time. And so being able to notice that and to change it allows you to take more control over yourself as opposed to having your emotions control your behaviors.

Southwick: At the top of the show, we talked about how your background is in finance, and, of course, we are a money podcast. You also said that a lot of people who come to Joyable are there for money anxieties that they're feeling. What's some advice for people out there who are feeling anxious over money? Maybe not having enough of it? Maybe too much of it? That's a problem I'm willing to suffer through.

Shalek: It's hard to be this rich.

Southwick: Yes, it's hard. What is some advice that you offer for money anxiety?

Shalek: There are a couple of things. The first is to what Bro was saying before. Really taking stock of where you are and whether your anxieties are realistic. Are they commensurate with what's going on, because you can be in really dire financial straits, but for a lot of folks they feel stressed when they have just some money, or they want to have more money, because we all are relative beings and we see that somebody else has got millions of dollars when I've got hundreds of thousands or whatever it may be.

The first thing is really taking stock. The second is once you've done that, approaching the problem in a way that allows you to say what you can do about it, because being anxious about whether you have enough money is helpful for about 30 seconds.

It's helpful to say this is something I should focus on. This is something I should do. Then it allows you to ask yourself what you should do. Should I spend more time thinking about my investment strategy? Should I look at a new job? What should I do to improve the situation if I need to do it at all?

That's really about it. It's about getting out of the unhelpful cycle of I'm worried about money, I'm worried about money, I'm worried about money; and into this is what I can do about it.

Brokamp: I remember reading a book about cognitive therapy and they were saying sort of what you said earlier. It's not wishful thinking. It's realistic thinking. And either your concerns are not valid, or your concerns are valid and you should do something about it. But just worrying about it isn't going to help you.

Shalek: Absolutely. We like to think of ourselves, particularly investors, as these objective, rational human beings. But in reality, the vast majority of our brain activity is focused on these base emotional responses, not rationally what I should do in a given situation. The more that you can shift yourself to being rational and objective, the better decisions you can make, the better investment decisions you can make, and ultimately the happier you are in life.

Southwick: Bro, we talked earlier about how so many destructive money behaviors can come from if you are feeling generally anxious and generally not happy.

Brokamp: Right. You hear a lot about people talking about self-medicating through alcohol or drugs, or something like that. But people often use money as self-medication. That's part of the problem when we look at financial therapy -- helping people with things like overspending. Compulsive gambling. Constantly going after get-rich-quick schemes. Those are often ways that people try to solve problems that obviously are very counterproductive. And there's evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy can help people in those situations, particularly with overspending and compulsive gambling.

Shalek: It's amazing how broad the techniques of CBT, which is what we call cognitive behavioral therapy, are. It can help you with what therapists would describe as transdiagnostic and help you with almost any issue. It's been shown to be effective for different types of stress, whether it's family stress. Financial stress. It's been shown to be effective with phobias if you're afraid of snakes, or heights, or social interactions, and it's been shown to help with anxiety whether it's money anxiety, or compulsive behavior, or whatever it may be.

Really, it's just this simple set of techniques. We've almost described on this podcast, in just the past few minutes, the core concepts of what CBT are, but the practice of going through this sort of becomes automatic to you to internalize, so you can really drive your behaviors by doing it that way.

Southwick: Bro mentioned how The Motley Fool went from a great big company down to a very small company. We've gone through our ups and downs and our shifts. You, as an entrepreneur, I'm sure you've been through ups and downs. Joyable went through a business model shift which was probably hard, not just for you as the leader of the company, but for your staff and maybe people you had to let go. What does a company that wants to make people happy and less anxious do to keep themselves happy and less anxious when they're going through a rough time?

Shalek: It's a great question. Being an entrepreneur is the most stressful job. I joke all the time that starting a mental health company is the most mentally stressful thing I've ever done. Really for us it's about taking our own medicine and following the practices that we believe in. There's no way to eliminate stress or anxiety. A world without stress or anxiety would actually be terrible.

Southwick: You'd be a psychopath.

Shalek: Exactly.

Southwick: You couldn't feel stress or anxiety.

Shalek: Exactly.

Brokamp: I remember getting my master's in education, and one of the professors said, "You want to keep kids at some level of anxiety because it shows to enhance performance."

Shalek: That's exactly right. You have this optimal zone where you want to be not too much stressed, not too little stressed. You want to be right in the middle.

Alison Southwick has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Robert Brokamp, CFP owns shares of Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook. The Motley Fool has the following options: short March 2018 $200 calls on Facebook and long March 2018 $170 puts on Facebook. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.