Are you a victim of debt stress?
Do you wake up before sunrise, covered in cold sweat and feeling the fear chomping at your gut?
You see, when people talk about debt, they seldom discuss feelings. I paid off a considerable amount of debt and learned enough to write a book about it. And I still remember the host of emotions that haunted every minute of my existence. I also remember that I couldn’t focus on the debt itself until I learned how to cope with these feelings.
(I didn’t realise back then that there are also reasons to celebrate debt.)
Debt stress – the three horses of debt apocalypse
The debt apocalypse has three horses – fear, anger, and regret.
When I first heard about our debt, there was nothing. The shock of realising the depth of money trouble we were facing made me utterly empty of feeling and paralysed.
Next, mighty anger started to seep in. I was furious with myself, my husband, and the world. (I suspect that anger is how extroverts experience their impotence; if you are an introvert, you may feel profound sadness and hopelessness.)
And let me tell you, friend, the anger was terrible but not as bad as the fear and regret. Yes, the world is scary when you have so much debt that your future is threatened, so if you feel scared and filled with regret, don’t waste your energy denying it.
Only when you are ready to admit to feeling anger, fear, and regret you are prepared to join the thousands of people who have successfully paid off their debt and live debt-free.
That is what I found, anyway. When I was ready to admit to my negative feelings about debt, I was ready to face these and learn how to control them.
How to stop stressing about debt?
Feelings are hard to change because they are not necessarily and always rational. In other words, how you feel may or may not be connected to the world around you. To make matters worse, the feelings you are likely to experience about debt are very primal – fear and anger are part of your Lizard brain and are what ensures survival. (Yes, I know our lives would be much fuller if it were joy and pleasure. Still, survival largely depends on fighting or running away.)
When it comes to changing our feelings, there are different schools in psychology. I find faith in the ones that teach us to interrogate, control and moderate our feelings.
Here is what I did to cope with debt stress and reframe my feelings about debt
As I was saying, we cannot change our feelings, but we can learn how to (re)frame and control them.
Six techniques helped me to do that. These are psychological conditioning, autosuggestion, meditation, learning how to make problems, (re)framing debt, and physical exercise.
#1. Psychological conditioning
Psychological conditioning is a technique that teaches your brain to associate two seemingly disconnected events. For instance, you can train your Lizard and Monkey brains to associate negative thoughts with unpleasant feelings. Conversely, you can train your brain to associate a positive feeling with a pleasant experience.
I used and still use an elastic hairband for that. I wear it around my wrist and flick it whenever a negative feeling or thought clouds my way. So far, it is working well for me.
#2. Autosuggestion and affirmation
Psychologists use autosuggestion to help us substitute or override negative thoughts. It works by creating positive affirmations and repeating them repeatedly at certain times every day.
You will have to create your positive affirmation, and this article offers easy-to-follow guidance for that.
When I was in shock at learning how much debt we had, I repeated, ‘We will be fine’ over and over every night before going to sleep. Despite breaking several rules for creating effective positive affirmations, it worked – I calmed down sufficiently to get out of the initial shock of having an obscene amount of debt and start dealing with it.
Meditation is known to be beneficial when it comes to controlling stress, anxiety, and negative feelings.
There is evidence that meditation produces positive physiological changes in our brains. Daily meditation helps control negative emotions improves our decision-making, attention, and memory. There is also evidence that regular and prolonged meditation practice makes us smarter and keeps us younger.
Over the years, I have experimented with different meditation apps and still think that Headspace is probably the best. Also, in the last year, I have been using Sensate to mediate – I find it very helpful.
#4. Make debt a problem, not a predicament
When you first face your debt, it is a predicament – it is intimidating insurmountable, and there is no end to it in sight. It is a source of feelings of fear, anger, and regret.
Try to frame your debt as a problem, not a predicament. That is not technically difficult, although it needs some work at the start.
You see, problems have solutions; predicaments don’t.
#5. (Re)framing debt as ‘negative wealth’
Whenever I thought about our debt, I felt down. Making payments was a slog, and seeing the money leave our account felt like the greatest injustice ever done to me.
I couldn’t have that because it was the biggest threat to successfully paying off our debt.
One day, I thought to myself:
‘Okay, what is debt? Really? When I calculate my net worth, it is the part of my wealth with a minus sign in front. It is my ‘negative wealth.’
Referring to our debt as ‘negative wealth’ made me shift my focus from paying off debt to building wealth; it made me feel good.
#6. Physical exercise
Exercise is always good for controlling your emotions and coping with stress and depression.
Gentle walking is undoubtedly better than nothing. Research shows that running is a physiological stress buster because its intensity allows your body to release ‘happy’ hormones.
I ran marathons throughout our debt payment adventure, which kept me sane (well, there are limits to everything, but relatively sane). I didn’t plan this one – it just happened and was so helpful.
Research also shows that regular martial arts practice is excellent for stress, depression, and controlling feelings.
How do you cope with debt stress?
Now you know how I felt about debt when we had too much of it.
I would have instead told you that I met the news about our debt with courage and heroically went on to pay it off. But I am not here to create even more money mythology and give you another heroic origin myth.
I am here to show you that even people who have successfully paid off their debt and continued to build wealth like me felt down and beaten initially.
It is okay if you share your feelings about what I told you.
It is not okay to harbour these feelings from now on – there are ways to cope with them, and I dare you to try. Because these feelings and how you learn to control them make the difference between living with debt and paying it all off.