Overcoming money anxiety

  • A Rake's Progress (3; The start of the spending spree) by David Hockney
  • A Rake's Progress (3; The start of the spending spree) by David Hockney

Koorosh Ostowari uses his experiences as a somatic therapist and property developer to help clients deal with money anxiety. His book and website, The Money Anxiety Cure, use a combination of spiritual and therapeutic teachings and practical advice. In this interview with Fuel editor Hannah Black, he explains his theory that, no matter how stressful your financial situation, it’s possible to develop a calm, accepting relationship to money.

Hannah Black: We have covered financial planning in terms of logistics on this website and in our events before, but I’m interested in the emotional blocks that might exist when we think about money.
Koorosh Ostowari: This book, The Money Anxiety Cure, came about from my own struggle as a young person growing up in America, a very goal-oriented culture. There’s a lot of pressure to perform, without taking time off to relax and feel connected to your nature and environment. I decided to research the subject – not just the psychological part of the process that stops people having a peaceful relationship with their finances, but also the somatic aspect. It’s the integration of the mind, the body and the finances. When they are brought together, you can have a healthy relationship with money.

There was a survey done a couple of years ago by the American Psychological Association that indicated that almost 75% of all the people living in America were experiencing severe stress and anxiety about money. More than half were women. Any kind of transition triggers mild or severe stress and anxiety that shows up in the form of inability to sleep, restlessness, all the normal concerns: What am I going to do when I retire, am I going to make it?

I drew from my experience as a successful businessman and a spiritual teacher in the area of Buddhist studies and as a somatic therapist. Somatic therapy is a body-based therapy, helping people deal with old stories and conditioning around money. It helps them get back in their bodies and learn to relax. It’s like physical GPS: getting back in touch with their gut feelings through their body and through their mind.

You’ve got to focus on the nuts and bolts around your finances. You can’t avoid budgeting, planning for the future and spending wisely: you’ve got to do those things, consciously. But you also have to be vigilant. This is what we call mindfulness or attentive presence. It’s really being attentive and present around your finances, as if it’s a spiritual practice. So the book and the website are designed to help people become responsible, and learn to mindfully and attentively deal with old stories and conditioning. Such as: the only way to make it is through struggle, the only way I can be successful is if I push really hard and don’t take time off, or money is the root of all evil. What stories did you grow up with around money?

HB: I think with some sense that it was bad to be too focused on money, and also the sense that it was just a massive hassle.
KO: People live financially a lot of the time from old stories and old programming that they grow up with. Try to unravel the old stories and replace them with new, positive stories, you’ll have a whole new experience. The other thing that’s really important is to get people back in touch with their bodies, learning to trust gut feelings.

HB: What about when people just avoid the entire issue, like ignoring bills, never checking their balance, and so on?
KO: That’s a huge issue. In the book, we have some practices to deal with that. For example when you get a bill in the mail, just hold the envelope and just learn to breathe. Ground yourself, feel your body, feel your connection with the chair, relax. And do a little gratitude practice, like: “OK, I got a bill from the water department.” But go into gratitude and feel the benefit of the exchange you are getting in the world: you are using a resource and being charged for it. Come back to yourself and breathe and relax and feel that everything’s OK. This changes the neural pathways in your brain from a place of fear, anxiety and avoidance, to a place of acceptance: this is just how exchanges work in the world. Money is an agent for facilitating this transaction.

HB: But money is also unfair: many people don’t get paid much and struggle for money for reasons out of their control, so it’s hard to experience it as this serene force of nature.
KO: You bring up a very good point. Here’s what I'd like to share with you. As an immigrant to America, I knew what it took to make it, and I would have to say yes, it’s really unfair in many ways. Artists should be paid the same as high-tech people! But sometimes our lot in life is not fair. There’s more struggle if you’re an artist or a teacher on a low salary and having a hard time making ends meet. But all of us, whether rich or poor, need to come to a place of some level of understanding, acceptance and peace. We need to be able to say to ourselves: this is where I’m at right now. It’s not necessarily what I wanted, or where I want to stay, but it’s where I’m at. It may not be pleasant, but can I sit with this? Can I be with it? Can I love myself, forgive myself, even if I’m going through tough times? Because tough times don’t last either, and if you come at it from a calm, accepting place, things are more likely to get better. If you feel victimized and helpless, I don’t know how far you can get.

HB: You’re saying even if there are realities in someone’s financial situation that are very difficult, it’s still important to find a more positive relationship to the situation to help you get out of it – is that a good summary of how you approach this issue?
KO: Yes, because I don’t know any other option. You do the nuts and bolts, you show up every morning, you interview for jobs, you ask for a raise, go out and knock on doors, and at the end of the day, that needs to be celebrated – even if you’re not being fully compensated, we need to celebrate our efforts every step of the way.

HB: I sometimes feel like my money anxiety is like a kind of hypochondria. Poverty and illness are both real threats, but the anxiety around them can feel uncontrollable. I notice how quickly I go from an issue like “I can’t pay this bill on time” to thoughts like “I am a useless person and my life is terrible,” just like a hypochondriac could use the real pretext of a headache to imagine that they are about to die of cancer.
KO: In the book, you’ll see there are some very important steps that people need to go through to feel secure. We need to get to the first or second threshold of basic needs to feel secure. If your work isn’t generating results, you’re going to feel uncomfortable. If you’re struggling to pay the bills, it’s hard to get to that level of basic comfort without being triggered. If you’re worried about having a roof over your head, and buying enough food and all that, what happens is our body starts responding in ways that go into a protective mode, unconsciously. We can’t control it. When we are feeling threatened, the body goes into fight, flight, freeze response. When we get into that spiral of freezing, we get stuck. A rich person may have made millions but they are still coming at that reality from fear and scarcity, a poverty mentality – which a lot of rich people have. They are still spinning in that mode of greed, hoarding, going after way too much even if they have enough, because they are still stuck in that illusion that the world is not safe. A poor person may fall into a freeze state, as their way of trying to protect themselves. Triggers like “I don’t have enough money” cause that reaction and people become helpless. What I try to do is help them not fall into that trap. Really keep your faith going and start making some shifts. If something’s not working – I really believe this is an abundant universe – we need to be inquiring constantly, how can I make my life better? If it doesn’t happen, because it’s just crazy out there, then we need to find another way. The stuff I’m hearing from people, is number one, we become very resourceful and frugal, we live in a community, we’re more able to save money through just doing things that don’t cost much money, you go out and have fun still. You may have to shift your vision of what prosperity is: it may not be possible for you to make a lot of money. You need to take care of the basics, but it could be that you need to create your own vision of prosperity that’s right for you.

See videos and read more advice on The Money Anxiety Cure website
Buy the book here