The other morning driving to work, I tuned my car radio to NPR to catch the latest news. It was grim: Russia and Brazil suspended trading on their stock markets. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke wanted to cut the interest rate again. The $700 billion bailout was looking to be closer to $1 trillion.
Are we headed into a depression? Is my job at risk? Have my pitiful retirement savings disappeared? By the time I parked my car, my mind was in overdrive. I felt unbalanced, freaked out and definitely not ready to begin concentrating on my work.
Even in the best of times, people are a bit crazy about money. Money is one of the major factors in divorces, whether it's mismatched priorities or blaming one another for overspending (or under-earning). And this economy has some of us scaredand stressedout of our wits.
Stress, which floods our nervous systems with the hormone cortisol, invokes our "fight or flight" responses. If we were still on the savannah running from a hungry lion, a shot of cortisol would be useful: We'd get a quick burst of energy, our sensitivity to pain reduced and our memory heightened, so we can run really fast to that safe spot, ignoring the rocks cutting our feet.
Long term, though, stress isn't so great. It raises blood pressure, lowers your body's immunity and even increases abdominal fat, leading to heart attacks and strokes.
So how do you lower your stress about money?
1. Breathe. The all-time, No. 1 stress reducer. Most of us don't pay attention to our breath; if we did, we would notice how shallowly we breathe. When we're afraid, we breathe fast, sometimes almost panting, which reinforces panic. To slow your breathing, count to five or six on each inhalation and each exhalation, trying to take in or let go of as much air at "one" as at "six." (Start with a three or four count if that's too hard and work your way up.) To deepen your breath, let your belly go soft and allow your diaphragm to expand and contract your abdomen. (Hint: You can't breathe deeply if you're sucking in your gut.) If this sounds foreign, lie down with your hands resting gently on your belly. Breathe through your nose, concentrating on the air coming in and going out; feel your belly rising and falling with your breath.
2. Tell your monkey mind to take a hike. You know, the mind that flits from subject to subject like a monkey swinging from branch to branch? The quickest way to get rid of your monkey is to engage in physical activity that requires you to concentrate. Whether that's team sports, sweating it out in aerobics or yoga, or just walking briskly around the block, adding some exercise to your routine (and doing it consciously) will give your brain a break while firming abs and glutes. Exercise also puts endorphinsthe feel-good hormonesinto your bloodstream, a natural antidote to cortisol.
3. Do one thing at a time. Multi-tasking sounds like a good idea, but when we try to do too many things at once, everything suffers. For example, talking on the phone while driving and drinking coffee will likely end up with an exchange of insurance info with the guy you just rear-ended. When you find yourself doing too many things at once, stop. Now, do what's most urgent and important. When that's done, move to the next thing.
4. Take stock and lighten up. Write down everything you own and its approximate value. If you don't need it, consider selling it. You'll end up with less "stuff" and more cash, which will help clear the clutter in your house, your wallet and your brain.
5. Balance your checkbook and figure out exactly how much money you bring in and spend every month. (Knowledge is power.) If you have payments automatically deducted from your bank account, make sure each payment is going for something you need. Once you know how much you have and what you spend, make a budget, and resolve to stick to it.
6. Name that boogeyman. Like the unidentifiable bumps in the night, nothing is worse than amorphous fear. Put your worst fears on paper, and then rationally look at what might happen and come up with solutions. Here's how: At the top and middle of five sheets of paper, write your 10 worst possible money scenarios. For each scenario, rate it on a five-point scale: highly unlikely to happen, not likely, 50/50, likely and highly likely. For every scenario that's 50/50, likely, or very likely, write two possible outcomes, and then come up with two possible solutions for each outcome.
Here's what it might look like: Scenario: Get laid off: likely; outcome one: go broke; solution 1: take any job to make ends meet; solution 2: network. Outcome two: starve; solution 1: I need to lose weight anyhow; solution 2: make big pots of homemade soups.
You get the idea, right? It's empowering to get the disasters out of your brain and on paper. Note: If you find yourself going down the doomsday path with this exercise, put the paper down and breathe. Then burn the paper and go for a walk.