I was speaking with a physician friend—let’s call her Jan— who was in a state of panic. How was she going to pay her mortgage? Was she going to lose her house?
Jan, like many of your clients, feels the many financial stressors that accompany the COVID pandemic. Her employer asked all physicians on staff to take a 15% pay cut. She decided to place her kids in expensive private school so they would be in a smaller classroom environment. Less money coming in and more money going out added up to a crisis in Jan’s head.
Jan’s a close enough friend so that I know that she could pay off her mortgage today. It sounded like she was talking about imaginary monsters under the bed.
How did she get so disconnected from her current financial reality?
Jan is suffering from financial PTSD. She is responding to events in the past as if they were unfolding today.
This is like a soldier coming back from Iran, hearing a truck backfire and suddenly being transported back to the desert battlefield.
When Jan was 5 years old, her family lost their house in foreclosure. Her parents were embarrassed and depressed and withdrawn afterword. She quickly learned that no one was to speak about this. Her parents were not available to help Jan process the many feelings she had around this loss. So, Jan did her best with her 5-year-old emotional resources and problem-solving skills to deal with this traumatic event.
In PTSD, the brain believes the past is the current reality. It’s like Groundhog Day without Bill Murray’s insight that he is living a redo.
Jan’s anxiety about her house was not a response to her current circumstances; she was responding to an event from the past. Further, in the grips of financial PTSD she was not an adult managing the problem. Suddenly she's running the brain software of a 5-year-old. PTSD therapist Cathy Thorpe would say that Jan forgot that she now has car keys and credit cards.
When you find a client in a state of panic, consider that they might be responding to an old childhood trauma. Gently ask the question, “How was money handled in your family? Did you ever go through a time when you family did not have enough?”
Sometimes that simple exercise is enough to remind the brain that the past is over. It's like shining a flashlight under the bed.
Then you are in a better position to make a financial plan that responds to today’s financial reality.