How to cure money anxiety

The mind-money connection

How do your finances make you feel? Even if the answer is “not great,” luckily there are things you can do to make that feeling better. 

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Bright Dixon (00:10):

Welcome to “Money and Mindset With Bright and Brian,” where we combine financial advice and positive psychology to help you find the joy in managing your finances, and make better money moves along the way. In each episode, we share practical advice for managing both your money and your outlook. I'm Bright Dixon, and my background is in positive psychology, and I'm here with Brian Ford, our financial wellness expert and self-described money nerd. Today, we're talking about money anxiety. We'll break down what this is and explore the relationship between our money and our mental health. Then we'll talk through ways we can regain control over our anxiety and our financial lives. Brian, you ready to go?

Brian Ford (00:53):

You bet.

Bright Dixon (00:59):

So, Brian, as we mentioned earlier, there's a relationship between our money and our mental health. It's like when one gets a boost, so can the other, and it also works the other way around.

Brian Ford (01:11):

Yeah, totally. I was looking at a recent survey by the American Psychological Association that stated 72% of Americans said they felt stressed about money, at least sometime in the prior month. So there's definitely a significant relationship going on between our money habits and our mental health. It's kind of like the chicken and egg scenario. It's sometimes difficult to know what comes first. For example, if someone's in debt and they struggle with a mental illness such as anxiety, that can make it harder for them to stay organized and make their payments on time. But on the other hand, the stress of being in debt could have contributed to the mental health issue in the first place. So it can be a tough cycle. So Bright, let's unpack this a little bit more. How else does money impact our mental health?

Bright Dixon (01:56):

We've talked before about sort of the upward spiral side of this that can happen when we gain control, but there's this other side too, when we feel like we're not in control, and like what happens when things are not going as well as we'd like them to, and then how do we take care of ourselves and our relationship to money even within that. So before we go too deep, we want to make sure that our listeners realize that while we're talking about this in the context of like money and mindset, quite literally, we are not mental health professionals. So if you're struggling, please reach out to get help. And we'll give some resources about that a little later on.

Bright Dixon (02:34):

But our goal for this episode is really to shine a light on the interplay between money and our mental health, partially because there can be a real stigma when it comes to discussing mental health in any way, and anxiety and asking for help. And that we've got to give credit to like the millennials and Gen Z attitudes because they're changing that [inaudible 00:02:53]. It's becoming much more acceptable to talk about mental health, which is excellent. We definitely want to go there. And part of the challenge here is how do we learn to manage anxiety and other mental health systems? And we really think we're moving in the right direction here, but there's this huge connection that we need to talk about pretty much as much as we can.

Brian Ford (03:12):

Yeah, I agree. I think we are moving in the right direction. I've seen some positive things occur and just the stigma is lessening, I've seen, which is a great thing. But all right Bright, I've got a question. I feel like there's a good side of stress that occurs when I'm not doing something with my money that I should. And in that sense, the discomfort of this stress, it motivates me to take action. But on the other hand, there's this debilitating type of stress and anxiety that's not motivating at all. But I want to know your thoughts. Is there such a thing as good stress?

Bright Dixon (03:44):

There's totally such a thing as good stress. So when we look at this sort of in the science, what we see is that stress, like so many other things, exists on a bell curve. So there's absolutely such a thing as good stress. And there's actually a word for it. It's called eustress, eustress. It's the Greek prefix. I know we're all into our ancient Greek.

Brian Ford (04:06):

What? You're dropping Greek knowledge bombs on us.

Bright Dixon (04:09):

Yeah, it's how I roll. It's just how I roll, Brian.

Brian Ford (04:12):

I'm excited to hear about this little stress bell curve. Keep going.

Bright Dixon (04:16):

So there's like the peak of the bell curve, and that peak is what we think of as our sweet spot when our performance and our stress are meeting up perfectly, and everybody has a different sweet spot. So the bell curve is as an aggregate, but all of our curves are shaped a little bit differently. And my sweet spot is going to look a little different than yours, Brian, and that's natural. But leading up to that, on the left side is what we call eustress. So it's the stress that like gets you out of bed in the morning, it's the stress that gets you to take a walk, it's the stress that helps you get your work tasks done on time, it's the stress that helps you pay attention to your kids and your partner and their needs, and your own needs too. So there's absolutely such a thing as good stress, and we need it. So all stress is not created equally.

Bright Dixon (05:05):

But the thing is that once we hit that sweet spot, if the stress continues to go up, we come back down the other side of that bell curve. And that's the kind of stress that we think about when we're thinking about things like money anxiety, is that stress that doesn't feel good in our bodies. And also, how we're performing, regardless of the task, also starts to go down that bell curve. So there's such a thing as good stress, but when we're talking about money issues, we tend to be talking about sort of the bad stress feeling that shows up in our body, shows up in our behavior.

Brian Ford (05:44):

Yeah. And when you get into that bad stress area, what's our natural kind of inclination. I mean, I wouldn't think that's a good place to be making decisions about money.

Bright Dixon (05:53):

No, no, no. It's not. We want to be on the good stress side when we're making decisions about money. So here's the thing. When we get into stress, what's happening is that our body is going into fight or flight. So we talk about it as fight or flight, it's really fight ... flight, or freeze. That's hard to say seven times fast. So when we're in fight or flight, there's a part of our brain that's really highly engaged in that and it's called the limbic system. And the limbic system is in charge of sort of fight or flight and also basic attachment. So it's a really ancient part of our brain in terms of sort of how our brains evolved over time. But also it's one of the first parts of the brain to evolve.

Bright Dixon (06:36):

And what it's doing is all the time it's scanning for danger or threat, and when it finds danger or threat, it sends a signal to the body that says like, all right, buddy, like get ready. We're going to have to do something here. And that's what fight or flight is. So when we are in that limbic system-driven fight or flight stage, our bodies respond too. So we know we're in stress when things start happening in our body. So you might feel your heart rate go up, maybe you get a little sweaty, maybe you're a pacer. I tend to pace. And like, my body like almost closes in on itself, like I can feel my shoulders tighten. All of that kind of stuff happens and we are in fight or flight. And so here's the thing: sometimes we need to be in fight or flight. This exists in our bodies for a reason because there is danger out there. But our limbic system is also kind of like a one-trick pony. And it's not very good at like ...

Brian Ford (07:33):

I think the rest of my brain might be a part of that [crosstalk 00:07:36]. Sorry to interrupt.

Bright Dixon (07:38):

Me too. Just a lot of different ponies, yeah, all with one trick, yeah. And I mean, that's kind of how it goes. So when we're in that, our limbic system is taking up a ton of sort of the energy that's going to the brain, which means that other parts of our brain, particularly our prefrontal cortex, which I think of as the problem solving and planning part of our brain. Like when you're making your grocery list or you're doing most of your work tasks, like your prefrontal cortex, that's what's engaged. And when our limbic systems are really highly, they're sort of on fire, they're really active, our prefrontal cortex isn't getting as much of the action, which means that we're not going to be as good at problem solving. We're not going to be as good at planning. And we want a strong prefrontal cortex when we're thinking about money, particularly when we're making money decisions.

Bright Dixon (08:32):

So that's why money anxiety is such a complicated thing, because when we're in it, we're already not making good decisions and those bad decisions that we might make when we're being driven by fight or flight, that gets us into more anxiety. So it's like this vicious cycle.

Brian Ford (08:48):

Yeah. And I do want to talk a little bit about in these states of anxiety and stress and when it's more than just the normal or motivating kind, when we feel totally stuck. I mean, that's in these scary moments that I think that we need to be careful. I mean, when we're stressed about money, how can we avoid developing unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as compulsive spending, binge eating, or just straight up ignoring our financial problems? Because sometimes I think these negative coping mechanisms may make us feel better in the moment, but they can also make the root of our problems actually worse. And I think that's why it's so important to turn to healthy coping mechanisms. And in fact, I think even independent of this particular podcast and preparing for it, I mean, Bright, if you would've asked me, look, you're a dad of four. What are some really big things you need to teach your children?

Brian Ford (09:37):

I'm not kidding, I would list healthy coping mechanisms in my top five, no joke. My kids hear about it all the time. And I'm like, guys, life is tough. Times are going to get rough. You will be depressed sometimes, you will feel anxious, and we need these healthy coping mechanisms when those times come instead of turning to kind of the negative ones. And I'll just share a couple of my own. And then Bright, I'd love to know your thoughts on this, but I love walking. That helps me a lot. I try and go walking almost every day. In fact, if it's early in the morning, it's even better when kind of things are quiet and cool. That just refreshes me from a nature standpoint.

Brian Ford (10:14):

I know this one might be a little weird, but I love cleaning and organizing. I'm actually going to talk about that one a little later on relative to our finances. But it kind of says, hey, things are a little out of control, but you can control like ... Or I should say, I can control my car and if it's tidy or not, or whatever it happens to be.

Brian Ford (10:32):

And then another one that I do that I'm trying to get better at is meditation. And for me, I don't even know if I'd call it meditation. It's more of just like some breathing techniques. I'm certainly not very good at it, but just some deep breathing, some slowing down, I even love kind of laying down and breathing in, and picturing like a certain color that's kind of entering into my body. Anything that can kind of make me more present is good, but what are some of your go-to coping strategies, Bright?

Bright Dixon (10:57):

I love that idea of like breathing and thinking about like bringing color into your body. I'm going to try that, but I am also a walker and I'm a pretty diligent walker. So I walk every morning as like not only sort of response to stress, because I do experience like general morning stress and like morning anxiety, but also just to keep myself regulated. I mean, we all know sort of exercise helps you do that, helps you manage stress. And so walking for me too. I also find like reaching out to someone, so not just keeping it with me, but reaching out to really one of my good friends and being like, hey, like I need to just say some things and you can respond or not, but I just like, I need to say them. And that's really helpful for me because for me sometimes, like something's not valid for me until someone else hears it and like reflects it back to me. So that's a healthy coping mechanism that I've learned over time.

Bright Dixon (11:53):

Another thing for me is just knowing that my emotion will pass. Just saying like, all right, now I'm feeling anxious. Here's what's going on in my body, naming it, my heart rate’s going up, I feel like there's a lot of stress in my shoulders.

Brian Ford (12:10):

Being aware of it.

Bright Dixon (12:11):

Yeah. And being aware of it helps it calm down. I truly don't really understand the psychology of that yet, but like I know it works for me, just being able to name here's what I'm anxious about. Here's what anxious feels like. And that in and of itself is really calming for me. And I want to mention too Brian, I had a ... First, she was my professor, and then she became my boss and mentor who was really important to my early career and gave me a lot of great advice, but also a lot of tough love. And one of the things that she would say is the antidote for anxiety is action. The antidote for anxiety is action. So she taught me to really, to not just take any old action. It's not just about like movement or doing something. It's about addressing what it is that I really, really need to address in the moment in some small way. And that's been a huge thing for me to really think through and use on a regular basis.

Brian Ford (13:17):

I like that. That's a great point. I mean, when we don't have financial literacy skills and the basics, like even like an emergency fund, it's going to compound other issues such as being in debt. I mean, ultimately, anxiety over money can make us feel like we don't have control over our lives. But on the flip side, like you said, action is the antidote. When we make good decisions that impact both of those things, we're further along the journey toward better mental health and financial confidence. We really build momentum in the right direction.

Bright Dixon (13:49):

And I think when we take care of the basics that we need to do, in finance, in our relationships, at our work, we take care of those things that we need to do, we're already breaking that cycle of sort of like, I don't have enough, I don't know how to get it. I don't have enough, I don't know how to get it. That’s over and over a cycle we tend to go into. So it's really important to take care of the basics too, and be resilient in the moment. And one thing that I want to say, listeners, is that with this discussion around mental health, we want to make sure that you're taking care of yourself. And we know that money and money anxiety can really drive people into challenge. So keep in mind that if you or someone you know is experiencing emotional distress or thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. So that's 1-800-273-8255. Please take care of yourselves and get the help you need.

Brian Ford (14:52):

Well said, Bright.

Bright Dixon (14:53):

I'll say too, for those of you who struggle with anxiety, which is something that I do, I really highly recommend that you find a professional counselor to work with. I am not shy about telling people that I've been working with counselors and therapists on and off since I was about 16. So that's 22 years now. So, most of my life, and like, I'm not crazy, and neither are you. I just need support to be my best self. And we all need that. So if you feel like you need that, please help yourself and find someone. So let's talk about action. So what do we do with all of this information? Let's talk about how we can break this cycle of money anxiety, and really live a better life. So stay tuned.

Brian Ford (15:52):

OK Bright, so how can someone soothe their money anxiety when there are financial and mental factors affecting them? Is there anything within the field of positive psychology that can help our listeners out?

Bright Dixon (16:04):

The most important step for addressing anxiety is to really be proactive. So take action to improve whatever it is that's making you stressed. So first we need to calm the body down. And there are lots of great techniques to do that. Breathing, Brian, which is one that you've already mentioned, is a really good way to calm that limbic system.

Bright Dixon (16:29):

Another great thing to think about is how can you induce some positive emotion right in the minute? So a positive emotion has this thing called the undoing effect, and it's that positive emotion undoes the negative physiological symptoms of negative emotion. So, it's a little complicated, so let me unpack it. All it means is that when we feel positive emotion, that yucky stuff that happens in our body when we feel negative emotion, heart rate goes up, breathing gets weird, maybe we get a little sweaty, maybe you have a leg that just kind of like bounces and lives its own best life under the table. When we induce some positive emotion, that stuff starts to dissipate, not all the way, but it really helps your brain sort of come back online, get more blood flow to your prefrontal cortex. So calm the body and then address the root cause.

Bright Dixon (17:22):

And Brian, I'm really curious, I know you work with people who have money anxiety and have really overcome it in significant ways. What are the strategies that people use that really help them calm their money anxiety, but also get back on track and break the cycle of how this works?

Brian Ford (17:44):

I'll start out by sharing my favorite one right off the bat, because it uses our inaction or inertia, which is usually our enemy, and it flips it around so that it works for our good. It's simply the idea of automation or setting our finances on autopilot. You can automate a savings plan, the way you pay bills. Certainly you want to automate investing for retirement, but whatever it is, the idea is that once you automate a financial task, then it takes willpower and work to actually turn the dang thing off. I'm not exactly sure what's going on psychologically, but this idea of automation works for a lot of folks. What do you think about that, Bright? What's your thoughts on just the automation side of things, specifically to overcome kind of this anxious feeling about I'm not doing enough with my finances or I'm not in a good place?

Bright Dixon (18:33):

You kind of got me on the automation train, and I had automated some bills a while ago, which has been great, but I've automated my investment in a new way and particularly my retirement so that I don't have to consciously make the decision every month of where I need to sort of divvy things up. It's on autopilot. I will say that when we were talking about giving a couple of months ago, Brian, and we were talking about how you could automate your giving, which I do as well. But you were like, oh man, maybe I'll miss out on like the boost of positive emotion that I get when I'm giving specifically and consciously in a nonautomated way. And I started thinking about that in the context of my retirement, which I just set it and forget it. And in any given moment, if you asked me how much I had, like I would not be able to tell you, frankly, because I pay that little attention to it because I'm really on this automation train.

Bright Dixon (19:37):

But I will say as part of like getting my tax stuff together this year, I did take a look at it. And I got a huge boost because I was like, whoa, look what I did, look at how good I've been. Look at the success I'm having.

Brian Ford (19:51):

Yes. I love it.

Bright Dixon (19:52):

It was such a good boost. So I think automating is a really good thing, but also we should make sure that we're checking in and giving ourselves credit for the good decisions we're making, even if we're not making them actively every month.

Brian Ford (20:06):

Absolutely. Not only do you want to check in just so you can get that boost and say, yes, it's doing it, it's working, but you also want to check in, because you do need to check in just from a pure financial standpoint, just to make sure it is on track and you're on top of things. So I'm in agreement with you. I love what I'm hearing. And as I was thinking about anxiety and money, I was reminded of how my wife and I used to like walking through model homes and what a great feeling we had as we did so. And I used to think that this feeling came from walking through kind of big, super cool homes that one day we might be able to live in, but we noticed that we had the same feeling, that same good feeling when we started walking through more modest homes we could actually afford. I mean, it wasn't even homes. Sometimes it was a town home or a condo. We noticed we still had that good feeling.

Brian Ford (20:54):

And we realized that it was because they were clean and organized. And my wife came to the realization, and I want our listeners to have that same great feeling when they walk through their financial house. I mean, right now it might be a messy house, or it might just need a little tidying up. Whatever the case, pick something out that has to do with your money and organize it. Maybe that’s setting up a filing system, and that could be an old school, physical filing system, or it might be an electronic one, just making sure that things are organized on your computer.

Brian Ford (21:26):

Maybe that means tracking your spending better by banking online or using a new app to track your spending, or coming up with a better system to pay bills online. If you're still doing kind of the paper bills, switching to online might really help. I will say there's some research out there that even suggests that paying your bills as they come in a little bit at a time, kind of weekly, makes people feel better than waiting till just like the end of the month, doing it once a month and it's this big chore. So some things to think about just when it comes to organization. But taking action on one thing to be just a little more organized with our money, it's going to make us feel better.

Bright Dixon (22:04):

I couldn't agree more, Brian. And I will say though, when I've sort of sat down to like get organized, I tend to do this thing where I'm like, I'm going to do it all today. At the end of this today, I'm going to be a completely different and better person. And then I get into it and I get overwhelmed. And so I think two lessons that I learned from that is like one, like manage my expectations about like what this is going to ... This isn't going to make me into a magically better person. I'm just going to be more organized around my finances.

Bright Dixon (22:39):

But also, like, I can take it slowly and I don't have to do it all at one time. And when I need a break, I take a break, which is different than quitting. Because what I'd love to do is be like, this isn't worth it and just like walk away. That would be the easy thing for me to do. What I really need to do is like, take a break, drink some water, maybe take a walk and come back to it, because once it's done and I'm more organized, I'll feel so, so much better.

Brian Ford (23:11):

Yeah, I like that, taking a break is different than quitting. All right, I may take credit for that with my kids, because I don't think they listen to this podcast so I feel like I'm good.

Bright Dixon (23:25):

Take all the credit.

Brian Ford (23:26):

Sweet. I'll do it. No shame. Look, there are a few other things that I've seen that do cause anxiety; kind of in conclusion here, I'll just mention a couple more, Bright. I have seen just overspending cause people that anxious feeling, just knowing that they're spending more than they make. And what I would say there is just simply, you may want to put the credit cards away for a month or two, and just go cash, or a debit card system until you kind of get back on track. That's one thing that I've seen people do just to kind of, again, you're just taking action. And even just the idea of taking action is going to make you feel better. But then the action itself will actually solve the problem as well, which is a deeper feeling of feeling better and overcoming anxiousness.

Brian Ford (24:11):

The other one is just financial emergencies. We see it all the time. I've experienced it. Something comes up you didn't anticipate, you don't have the money for it. What I would say then is you’ve got to use that anxiety, that discomfort to motivate you to set up an emergency account. Here at Truist, we actually call it a financial confidence account. And the reason for that is if you want to be proactive about this, it's crazy when you get one of these things and it's fully funded and in the right place, a tremendous amount of confidence will come in your life regardless of if an emergency ever happens to you in the future. So we like calling it a confidence account, and you can put in a couple of the principles we've already talked about in this podcast.

Brian Ford (24:48):

You want to save first, and you definitely want to make it automatic, you automate that savings account. It's just going to feel good because you're going to look at it in a few months from now, or even a year from now and be like hot dang, I'm a saver. I got an account for emergencies. And again, that will kind of build confidence. So there's just a few others that I've kind of seen working with folks when it comes to money and anxiety.

Bright Dixon (25:07):

Yeah. I think that's really important. I mean, I especially think sort of like when you're facing debt, too, that, that can be so anxiety producing because I think for a lot of people, it feels like there's no way out. And I think that the moral of that story is like, the only way out of that is through. You've got to go through that and reduce that debt over time, but it does take a ton of planning and organization. And one of the things we know, too, about like hope as an emotion is that when you take a step towards whatever goal it is you have, that step gives you hope. And then you use that hope to move forward to the next step and the next step and the next, and that's what builds the upward spiral. And so listeners, regardless of where you are and your own money anxiety, take action to move yourself out of it and seek support when you need it.

Brian Ford (26:12):

Very well said. I love that. Whenever we're in a situation, especially financially, where we don't want to be, first, we take ownership of it and we're like, hey, I'm here, because of some things I did. What's beautiful about that is the flip side is also then true, which is hey, you actually then have control, you're in control, and taking those small steps to make positive habits become sustainable is a big deal. I'll also say with money-specific problems, consider reaching out to a financial expert, just to find ways to get you in a better place financially. There's lots of folks that can help you out there.

Bright Dixon (26:52):

Brian, I feel less anxious just talking to you about money and anxiety. I think we should do this again sometime.

Brian Ford (26:59):

Let's do it next month.

Bright Dixon (27:00):

Yeah, let's do it. So thanks everybody for joining us for this episode. Next time we'll discuss whether or not money actually can buy happiness with a focus on why where you spend and how you spend matter to your overall health and happiness.

Brian Ford (27:18):

I am very much looking forward to that episode. We've got some cool stuff to talk about. Hey everybody, if you enjoyed our chat today, consider subscribing, and we would love for you to share this podcast with someone you care about. We'll see you next time.



There’s no question that your money and your mental health can impact one another directly. And money stress in particular is common—according to an APA survey, 72% of Americans say they felt stressed about money at least some time in the prior month. 

In this episode, Bright and Brian talk about money anxiety and what you can do to overcome it. 

Listen in to learn about:

  • The difference between good and bad stress, and why all stress is not equal
  • Healthy coping mechanisms that can help you deal with stress and anxiety
  • One of the most effective things you can do to manage anxiety (hint: it’s about being proactive)
  • How an automated, hands-off approach to finances can actually help you overcome negative feelings


If you enjoyed this podcast, subscribe or drop a rating or review in your podcast app of choice! Share it with someone you care about, too. 

This content does not constitute legal, tax, accounting, financial, investment, or mental health advice. You are encouraged to consult with competent legal, tax, accounting, financial, investment, mental health professionals based on your specific circumstances. We do not make any warranties as to accuracy or completeness of this information, do not endorse any third-party companies, products, or services described here, and take no liability for your use of this information.