A Conversation About Financial Trauma
A recap of our conversation with trauma expert Alexa Bailey, MSW, LMSW.
On November 22nd, Peachy made its Twitter Spaces debut. Our CEO and Founder, Lex Oiler, hosted a conversation with trauma expert Alexa Bailey, MSW, LMSW, about financial trauma. Dozens of Twitter friends tuned in, but we know that not everyone had a chance to tune in to this highly valuable chat. As such, we are excited to present a condensed version of this chat, allowing readers like you to glean a nugget or two of the knowledge our gracious guest bestowed upon us.
Without further ado, a recap of “A Conversation About Financial Trauma.”
Lex: What is trauma?
Alexa: The word trauma comes from the Greek root of “wound.” When we think of trauma, we often think of military service or sexual assault or neglect–these really big things. But we often forget that another piece of trauma is little things, maybe things that don't happen or even small things that add up over time. For example, if you grow up in a critical household, you may start to think that that's normal when it’s not.
With that understanding in mind, trauma is really these unhealthy beliefs that develop over time that disrupt our ability to healthily process experiences.
Trauma is also deeply connected to shame. Shame is a big indicator that something has left a deep impact of trauma on us. Feeling shameful is one of the deepest, hardest emotions that we have. And so, when I think of trauma, it is this mix of big things that happen, but also a collection of little things that build up over time.
Lex: If everyone seemingly goes through some level of trauma, how is trauma triggered? What does that look like?
Alexa: The funny thing about trauma is that it looks so different for every person. And what you experience that might feel traumatic for you will not necessarily be traumatic for me, right? This is because it comes from deeper than just our thoughts and our emotions–it starts from our nervous system. So in these moments, we're no longer consciously making decisions about what we're doing. Instead, our nervous system is responding. And that's kind of the wildest part of it all–you don't have a whole lot of control over it. It's this unconscious response, so it can show up in many different ways.
Some of the biggest responses that we may be familiar with are flashbacks (or re-experiencing what has come before), but responses also arise in little things like avoidance behaviors. For example, someone might stay away from things that bring up similar emotions. And often, more unhealthy, extreme coping can accompany trauma triggers, like over-eating or self-harming. Those are some examples, but it really can be anything that calls back to those original experiences and elicits the same response from the first time around.
Lex: That makes complete sense. I'm not a professional, but the book “The Body Keeps Score” explained so much about me. And having that explanation felt very relieving.
Alexa: Absolutely. That's one of my favorite books, so go look it up. And just like you said, the body does keep the score, and whether you're a believer in that or not doesn't matter. It's going to happen anyway.
Lex: What do financial trauma triggers look like?
Alexa: I love this question because it's a topic of trauma that we don't really think about. It's not a new concept, but we just rarely talk about it openly. Going back to the Great Depression, we can easily look around and see examples of this in real life. We see grandparents or great grandparents who practice this extreme frugality and penny-pinching to save, right? And it’s common to see this in retired folks with a healthy retirement fund who are still super cheap. And those are the trauma responses we were talking about earlier. There’s a deeply held belief there that is causing them to behave in a certain way. And that’s the interesting thing about financial trauma triggers: they look slightly different.
A lot of times, when we’re thinking about some of these struggles, we have to go back to what our experiences were like and try to identify the narratives that are dictating our beliefs. And that can tell us a little bit more about what those triggers might look like. But a common financial trigger is avoidance. So we might put off paying our bills because we think, “Oh well, I can just pay it later,” or “It's too much to think about right now” And it's not a conscious choice; it’s a biological and psychological process of survival. But it just doesn't serve us very well. We start slipping into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. Then, instead of addressing what's coming up, we’ve created this deeper issue–a sense of avoidance and anxiety. And it can really start to spiral into avoiding paying bills, avoiding going to the doctor, avoiding talking about anything financially related, and even avoiding looking at your bank account.
Also, a big sense of dissociation can arise too. Ideas like, “I'm not going to be attached to any of this.” And then you can end up spending obscene amounts of money, or even on the opposite end, not spending any money at all. So it really does show up in such interesting ways.
Lex: When someone is experiencing trauma triggers, how can they gain perspective and escape that “fight for survival” mode?
Alexa: Avoidance and dissociation are the biggest ways we attempt to handle our trauma. While they serve a purpose, relying on those coping mechanisms often leads to us never feeling fully rested, never really living in the moment, and ultimately leading a sort of shell of a life. A big part of separating from that is trying to question the stories we are telling ourselves and ask ourselves, “Where is this coming from? Where have I heard this before? And where did I hear it first?”. Even when you feel confident that you are doing something consciously and that you’ve made a distinct choice to behave a certain way, dig even deeper. Ask why again. Ask yourself, “How does this serve me?”
But even before that, it’s important to validate the feelings that come along with trauma and trauma triggers. We need to have some radical acceptance that, for better or worse, we have beliefs about our finances and money. If we don’t validate it first and instead just go straight into management mode, that’s not actually helping us at all! It’s just digging us deeper and really solidifying and reinforcing that idea that we are not good enough and that we cannot handle it, because we are disallowing ourselves from feeling those emotions.
Everybody’s process is going to look different. Sometimes it's deeper and needs a licensed professional. But beginning by bringing awareness to the “why” underneath our behaviors lets us know where to start. It’s important to remember that all behavior is communication. Anything that you do is communicating something to you. We just don't listen very often.
Lex: Once we have asked “Why?” a bunch of times and gotten to the root of it, what do we do with that knowledge?
Alexa: I'm a big fan of externalizing. Once I recognize the “why,” I probably need to say that out loud, write it down, journal, and identify what those negative thoughts are and how they rattle around. Maybe we even share that with someone we trust to get another perspective. We tend to be pretty biased, and we're usually biased in a pretty negative direction. And so, it can be helpful to bring in a trusted point of view to gain more perspective and start challenging those thoughts and identifying the evidence that agrees or disagrees with that perspective.
Another piece of that is getting specific with the feelings wrapped up with those stories and the “why.” I can say I'm sad, but that's pretty vague. So to adequately address and cope with it, we need to be specific and dig deeper into what those emotions really are and what they mean for us. And externalizing those emotions is a big thing. In turn, sharing it with a trusted person so that we can start to have more control and awareness about what we need. It’s important to note that each person’s needs will be different. I think sometimes we have judgment around that, but releasing ourselves from that shame of what our beliefs have been, does require us to get a little bit vulnerable and be willing to recognize that the decisions that we made when we were trying to survive might not be the ones that serve us now.
More about Alexa:
Alexa Bailey is a Licensed Master of Social Work who works in private practice providing therapeutic services at Evolve Counseling. She has experience treating several different populations and areas, including trauma, anxiety, depression, relational challenges, and life transitions with both adolescents and adults. Alexa is a big advocate of self-care and creating whole person wellness through positive change and addressing past patterns of trauma and negative beliefs. Alexa has chosen to specialize within trauma because of its universal impact on individuals and communities.