As a financial planner and financial therapist, my only honest answer has to be, “Most Americans can’t.” The economic fear and stress of the COVID-19 crisis affect many of us: retirees living on income from investments, business owners facing the impact of pandemic shutdowns on their workers and their own livelihood, employees working from home, and those who have lost jobs and are struggling to provide for their families’ basic needs.
However, financial stress is not the same as emotional stress, although the two are often conflated. The better question might be, “How can people cope with the emotional stress that can result from financial stress during this pandemic?”
Obviously—at least from my perspective—seeing a financial therapist would be helpful. Just as obviously, this is not an option if your financial stress comes from struggling to pay rent and buy groceries because you’re unemployed. But you still may be able to use some of the tools of financial therapy to help you cope.
1. Accept the reality of the stress. Move toward it, rather than depleting your emotional resources by trying to avoid or resist your feelings around it. Notice what you are saying to yourself, the messages going through your mind. Scan your body for sensations like tightness in your neck and shoulders or pain in your gut that are clues to your emotions. Become aware of your feelings. Name them: fear, anger, shame, hopelessness, or whatever they may be. Allow yourself to feel and sit with them for a time. When we do this, they typically pass, resulting in greater clarity and lightness.
2. Bring yourself into the present moment. Are you okay right now? Are you breathing, able to function, not in immediate physical danger? Naming your emotions and grounding yourself in the present can help restore your ability to think. Then you can begin to problem-solve.
3. Objectively observe your situation. Are your finances stable for now but you’re worried about the security of your income? Are you facing eviction or foreclosure? Are your fears and worries realistic, or might they be out of proportion to your circumstances?
4. Assess your financial, occupational, and emotional resources. Financial resources might include emergency reserves, retirement accounts, potential loans, help from family or friends, social service programs, and possessions you could sell. Occupational resources could include skills that might help you find alternative employment or generate income. Emotional resources include your own strength and resilience as well as the friends and family who are your support system.
5. Draw from past experiences. You may have been seriously affected by—and emerged from—the market drops and housing crisis of the 2008-2009 recession. You may have experienced—and learned perspective and wisdom from—personal life challenges like serious illnesses, financial setbacks, failed relationships, or the deaths of loved ones.
6. Focus on present needs. Prioritize, then do what you can to take care of the most urgent immediate needs. Put your energy into providing food and housing for your children, reducing your spending, or finding creative ways to keep the doors open at your business.
7. Leave future worries for the future. You may need to temporarily set aside longer-term financial consequences like credit card debt that you can’t do anything about right now. Worrying about future possibilities that are out of our control only depletes the energy we need to cope with the present.
8. Be open to possibilities. Coping strategies like temporary jobs, ventures into the gig economy, or shifts in the way your company provides its services may turn out to be doorways to new career and income opportunities.