Contextualizing Trauma in Personal Finance Content

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Hi, I love you all and hope you are holding up okay. Just a note before today’s post to remind you that I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist or any other type of mental health professional. Also, a trigger warning that this post deals with themes that are congruent with other types of trauma outside of or concurrent with the effects of the current pandemic.

We are all grappling with what’s happening around us. It’s been traumatic. While it’s definitely been harder for some more than others, this pandemic is something that has affected us all.

I really liked this analogy from Brittany Packnett Cunningham, that we’re all in the same storm, but we are NOT all in the same boat.

This type of trauma is difficult. It’s persistent. Inescapable. You learn to live in it without fully getting the chance to step out of it and recover.

In the midst of all this, we’re all more irritable. Our buttons are easier to push than ever, with stress maxing out our tolerance for bullshit.

In the midst of all this trauma, I want to contextualize the personal economic discussions you’re sure to see flying around the web right now, especially on personal blogs like this one.

These are my interpretations of what I see happening around me in my community — and honestly within my own content. My interpretation may differ from your own, and I welcome respectful discussion in the comments.

Responses to Trauma

There are three basic responses to trauma with which I’m familiar enough to reference. None of these responses are right or wrong. They’re defense mechanisms your body is using to try to survive. To get through to that next moment when danger is no longer imminent.

Fight

One response to trauma is to try to fight your way out.

This might manifest in your personal finances with a newfound hyper-vigilance over your budgeting spreadsheet.

It might make you side hustle super hard.

You might also find yourself fighting for the health and safety of those around you above economic impact.

Whether that’s begging your mom not to go to work or working on a larger scale to assist those most exposed to the virus get the equipment, care or social programming they need.

Because this economic hardship and all the trauma that comes along with it is likely to last for a long time — though I do not yet believe it will last forever — a sustained fight response is also likely to lead to burn out. Maybe even crash-and-burn-style burnout.

Flight

If your response is flight, right now things are complicated.

If you’ve been on social media lately, you’ve seen that vlogger who tried to escape to Hawaii. And another blogger who packed her family in an RV to escape the NYC area.

Both situations were met with much ridicule, and understandably so. No links because this is not about shaming these people. Their responses are anecdotally relevant here, though.

In normal times, flight is an okay thing to do. These are not normal times. Exercising flight in traditional ways can be dangerous to the health of others around you, if not to your own.

Diet & Exercise are just like Personal Finance!

Exercising as a way to express flight is a thing — especially right now as we’re metaphorically running from a temporally inescapable problem.

So if you’re really annoyed by everyone pretending they’re a marathon runner or feel like simply scrolling through your feed right now is akin to ritual shaming, know that it’s not about you.

Also, remember you got that mute button. 😉

A lot of people are dealing with the stress this way. It’s normal. For some people, it’s even super healthy.

You’re probably going to see a lot of blog posts about how diet and exercise are just like personal finance.

If it doesn’t resonate with you, that’s okay. You can go read something else, perhaps even noting that this content may be helping others who are dealing with all this trauma in a different way than you are.

If you’re creating this content, it would also be cool if you could be conscientious that flight is not the only way of dealing with all the stress. That you can take things too far with diet and exercise. And that if someone comes out of this thing without a six-pack or $100k net worth, it definitely doesn’t make them an inferior human being.

But like also don’t touch that 401(k).

The market looks scary right now.

But rocky times in the economy should already be accounted for your long-term plan. Pulling out of the market feels like the right thing to do thanks to the flight response, but depending on how you’ve invested, it’s likely to be detrimental to your own long-term financial goals.

Even if you’re not able to contribute to your retirement account, try to do everything you can to avoid touching your retirement savings.

Know that in so many cases, even in bankruptcy, creditors cannot touch most tax-advantaged retirement account savings.

That being said, the complications of living with a bankruptcy on your record can be dire in the best of times. Make the best decisions you can based on your own, individual circumstances. You may even be able to consult with a pro bono lawyer to get personalized legal guidance when considering bankruptcy vs. pulling from your retirement savings.

Also beware long-term that those who have endured trauma tend to be unnecessarily and sometimes detrimentally conservative with their investments.

Freeze

Freezing is another perfectly valid response to stress. Traditionally, your body might shut down or shield you from pain responses to help you survive the initial impact of physical trauma. You might feel the need to cut yourself off from others virtually, even when we are separated physically already.

In response to economic trauma, you might need this time to rest. To not hustle super hard. To gather your energy for what comes next. Emotionally recover from all the freedom and personal power you have lost in the past month.

That’s okay, too. Just know it’s going to be helpful long-term to generally keep on top of your finances as much as possible, even if you can’t give them the boost they may need right now. None of this is your fault.

There are no right or wrong reactions.

In response to trauma, there are no right or wrong reactions as far as which response manifests. I think as we each pull through this thing in our own way, we need to remember that we’re all going to respond differently.

Because this experience is sustained, we might even cycle through different reactions. That’s actually supposed to be healthier than habituating one of them, even though habituation is likely to happen in cases of sustained trauma.

That means not every article is going to speak to our individual experience. That’s okay. In fact, that same article that doesn’t speak to you today could end up being really motivating or reassuring a few weeks or even days down the line.

Take as little offense as possible if you’re not reacting the way a certain writer proposes you should be. It’s just going to add to your stress. In many cases, it’s an unnecessary burden in this time of sheer overwhelm.

If you’re creating content, it’s helpful to remember this, too. To not insult those who are dealing with the stress differently in any given moment in an attempt to inspire.

Because while there’s not one, right reaction to the trauma we’ve all experienced, we also need to remember that there are multiple ways of dealing with this experience.

Just because we haven’t experienced a reaction personally doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

And just because we have experienced a reaction personally doesn’t mean it’s superior to the response of others.

Harnessing our reactions for the better.

If you find yourself in fight mode, by all means use that energy to send those personal finances into to hyperdrive. That’s how this blog was born.

It’s also why I can tell you first-hand that when you’re in fight mode, the risk of burnout is real. Be cognizant of it, and try real hard to do all that mindfulness stuff to bring yourself back to center. Force yourself to take breaks, even if they initially feel uncomfortable.

If you find yourself in flight mode, be cognizant that the very natural reaction to want to pull out of all financial institutions in a moment like this is real.

But it’s against all traditional financial advice, even and perhaps especially the stuff written for turbulent times like these.

If you find yourself frozen, that’s okay, too. You’re going to have more energy after everyone else has jogged and side hustled their way through this first period of the downturn. Take care of your mental health first and foremost.

If you really just can’t get going again, seek help via a telehealth service like www.betterhelp.com. As much as stalling out is sometimes the only thing you can do, your bills don’t see things the same way I do.

There are programs out there to help right now. The first Pennsylvanian unemployment check with that $600/week boost just went out. Some assistance is coming, even if we’re slow to see the money manifest in our pocketbooks.

No matter what your response, before your money, you want to address your mental health. Just because you’re not frozen doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.

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