When Anna Davies turned 30, after becoming a mother, she noticed a change in her relationship with money.
“In my 20s, I could afford everything with my salary”, says the American from New Jersey, in the United States.
“When I had a baby, I had to start taking into account both the baby’s expenses and the need to save for the future.”
Davies knew the financial stress of being a single parent was great, especially as a freelancer writing about personal finance.
Precisely because she understood economics and investing, however, she felt ashamed to see reality so far removed from the financial goals she had set herself.
“I understood that from an intellectual perspective, I was able to tell you exactly how you should save your money and invest, but I couldn’t do it myself.”
The young woman was then faced with the expanding field of financial therapy, which deals with both personal finance and mental health.
Financial therapists use their training as psychologists to help patients resolve their relationship with money, specifically addressing the emotional root of financial stress rather than the behavior itself, as some existing methods do.
She was terrified during her first session: “It’s easier to talk about sex and love relationships than about money.”
“Even within the confines of a therapy room, I think being able to [dizer]: ‘Okay, here’s my bank statement, here’s how much money I actually have’ — it’s scary.”
Money issues are — and always have been — stressful.
For some people, the apprehension and anguish can even manifest as a kind of phobia.
To help deal with these issues, a growing number of people, like Davies, are turning to financial therapists for help.
But can this hyper-targeted treatment help resolve troubled relationships with money?
a real phobia
Financial decisions are deeply linked to emotions. And research confirms this.
In 2000, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for applying psychological insights to economic theory, especially in the areas of judgment and decision-making under conditions of uncertainty.
His job was the confirmation that financial decisions are emotional.
According to a 2019 survey by the Perk Box employee experience platform, money is the biggest cause of stress in the UK, with 61% of 1,139 respondents stating that money caused them more stress than their job (51% ) and their family (24%).
Brendan Burchell, a professor of social science at Cambridge University in the UK who researches money-related stress, says financial phobia is a real phenomenon.
While there is not much research into the phenomenon specifically, we know that it can manifest itself differently in each person—for example, some may avoid getting involved with money issues, while others may overspend in response to anxiety.
Regardless of behavior, emotional stressors linked to financial life can be a significant issue.
“It really feels like a phobia in a lot of ways,” says Burchell, in the sense that we have a deeply emotional response to money.
In a way, he adds, the phobia of, say, checking our bank statements isn’t much different from an extreme fear of spiders or clowns.
For this reason, Burchell does not believe that conventional therapy would be of much help in the treatment of financial phobias.
“In the same way that, for example, having someone who is a good listener doesn’t help you in particular. You can explain endlessly why you don’t like spiders, [mas] the phobia will not go away.”
Burchell believes that professionals who specialize in treating phobias are a promising approach to ending financial phobia.
“It’s important to get the right therapy,” he says.
“If [a fobia financeira] is genuine, like all our [trabalho] in the laboratory and some of our other studies suggest, so something like CBT seems to work well.”
CBT, short for cognitive-behavioral therapy, is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on making change by analyzing underlying issues—and it is one of the structured methods that financial therapists use to help patients.
Carrie Rattle, a former Wall Street executive turned financial therapist, agrees that CBT is a practical approach to unraveling people’s emotions about money.
During his previous career, Rattle says he realized that “telling people logically what they ‘should’ do wasn’t working, even though there are hundreds of financial education organizations out there and thousands of books on budgeting.”
This gap between financial literacy and emotion led Rattle to his second career as a financial therapist.
Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a licensed financial therapist and social worker in Michigan, USA, addresses her patients’ financial problems with “values-based work,” an aspect of CBT that involves reassessing what is important to the individual and reframing decisions based on these values.
This means that rather than offering patients general guidelines such as “stop spending money eating on the street,” Bryan-Podvin encourages them to think about what kind of spending is worth the most for them.
“For some, dining out offers a stress-free time to reconnect with loved ones, satisfying a personal value of connection,” she says.
“Others may value the expenses with the renovation or decoration of the house, linked to a value of protection and security.”
Bryan-Podvin believes that when people’s spending habits are aligned with their values — and people spend on what they value most and save on what they value least — they get a better emotional return on their spending.
Rattle, who works to help compulsive shoppers get out of debt, uses CBT tools, including psychodynamics and money dialogue, as well as identifying patterns of behavior.
“Identifying emotional triggers is essential for self-management,” says Rattle.
“When there’s a trigger, you need to be prepared to pause during the emotion so you can reframe the reaction from a calmer place.”
This “place of calm” is especially important for couples struggling with finances, as data shows that financial stress is a significant factor in divorce.
This is the case even for couples who have no difficulty paying the bills.
It’s not a ‘cure’
Financial therapy is still a relatively new field and its practice is still quite limited in the United States.
There is still a lot to learn about what financial therapy can—and cannot—do.
The potential benefit is great, but some experts believe that properly addressing money stress can go deeper than hypertargeted financial therapy.
While Burchell believes in treating financial phobias, he doesn’t necessarily support treating finance as an isolated issue. Often, he says, they are intertwined with other psychological issues that need to be addressed.
“[Talvez] the ‘shopping therapy’ is one of the things that the person uses to [permanecer no] control,” he suggests as an example.
“The idea of finding a simple solution [em que] you do a small number of sessions and being ‘cured’ won’t work.”
Burchell points out that we’re simply not at a stage where we know how these approaches work over the long term, given how little we know about how our finances and emotions are related.
And as interesting as the idea of financial therapy is, some may not find it easy to embrace—at least not right away. This was undoubtedly the case with Davies.
Regardless, once Davies opened up, she found the search beneficial.
From her own experience, she says it was helpful to recognize childhood patterns and how they changed and changed when she became a mother.
“[Estou] more attentive to how I spend my money and how I talk about money with my daughter,” she says.
“I want her to feel in control of her money, not feel overwhelmed as she gets older—I hope I can lay the foundations of good financial ability for her.”
Read the original version of this article (in English) on the website BBC Work Life.