This probably won't come as much of a shock to you, but Americans are stressed. And while that condition has plenty of sources, if you're not wealthy, the odds are good that some of your chief stressors involve your financial situation. For this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp are joined by Pete Shalek, the co-founder and CEO of Joyable, which he describes as not just an app, but an end-to-end mental-health solution that helps people improve their emotional well-being.
In this segment, they discuss CBT -- cognitive behavioral therapy -- which is a method designed to help people recognize when their anxieties are taking control. While there are times when you're right to be worried, there are other times when it's not the situation that makes you feel anxiety or stressed -- it's how you interpret it. And that's something you can change.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Feb. 6, 2018.
Alison Southwick: Before we get talking about anxiety and stress, why don't you tell us your story, because you have a background more as an entrepreneur and a businessperson than a psychologist or a therapist.
Pete Shalek: It's great to be here, first of all. Thanks for having me. My background is sort of winding, and it all came together with Joyable in some way. In high school I spent all my free time on mental health. I spent my summers working in mental health facilities. I was taking psych classes at the local community college. Reading Freud and Jung in my free time. I was about the least...
Robert Brokamp: Just like every teenager.
Shalek: ... you could possibly dream of. It wasn't the peak of my life, let's say.
Brokamp: You were building the foundation.
Shalek: Exactly. I didn't know it at the time. I wrote my college essay on being a therapist and went undergrad and then my freshman year, I stumbled into this random opportunity to start a business. I started, of all things, a laundry delivery service. I do not like laundry, but I loved the process of creating this business over four years. Ran it for a few years, built a small team, and then sold it and was hooked. That convinced me that I wanted to go on the business side instead of on the medicine side.
I ended up being a professional investor for a few years. I advised folks at Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) and then invested in a private equity firm called Hellman & Friedman and came out of that with a desire to go back to entrepreneurship and particularly do something in healthcare.
Then my passion for mental health came up. I have a bunch of friends and family members who've gone through emotional crises in various ways, and it got me excited about starting Joyable, and that's how it all kind of came together.
Southwick: Joyable relies heavily on cognitive behavioral therapy and this is where I'm completely out of my waters on understanding this or talking about this. Bro, why don't you ask some intelligent questions about cognitive behavioral therapy because you are studying the intersection of money and this.
Brokamp: I'm getting my graduate certificate in financial therapy from Kansas State, and I have taken a few classes that mentioned cognitive behavioral therapy, so I'm not an expert. Pete, you can tell me if I got this wrong, but basically it comes down to the way you think and talk to yourself affects the way you behave and the way you feel. But a lot of the things you think actually are not true, are at least not completely true.
Shalek: That's exactly right.
Brokamp: So, cognitive therapy relies on you recording these thoughts and analyzing them and questioning whether they're accurate.
Shalek: That's exactly right. The basic premise of cognitive behavioral therapy is simple. It's not a situation that makes you feel anxious or stressed. It's how you interpret it. And by analyzing the things that make you feel a certain way, by looking at the thoughts you have and the behaviors you take, if you change those things, you actually change how you feel.
The easiest way to illustrate this is if I asked you two, right now, to feel really sad, do you think you could do that? That you could make yourself feel sad right now?
Southwick: Oh, absolutely!
Shalek: How would you do that?
Southwick: I would think about something bad happening to my family. That would be the fastest way.
Shalek: Exactly. You'd take a thought, and that thought would drive a feeling. The idea of cognitive behavioral therapy is that you work to analyze your thoughts, because a lot of times your thoughts are automatic. You don't consciously think things. They just come into your brain. By analyzing those thoughts, you can become more in control of them and as a function of that, you can feel better.
And it's really neat, actually. Some research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy changes the way your brain is structured. The part of your brain that's associated with fear, the amygdala -- the reptilian brain -- changes after you go through a course of cognitive behavioral therapy, so you have less activation there. Less blood flow to that part of the brain and more blood flow to the part of the brain associated with logical thought. You're basically more in control of your emotions, as opposed to having your emotions control you.
Southwick: How do you know when you need help? It's natural for me to be concerned that my daughter is going to get kidnapped. It's not natural for me to be so concerned that she's going to get kidnapped that I'm never going to let her leave the house. Somewhere in between there I've crossed the line and need some CBT in my life.
Shalek: I'm a huge believer that everybody can improve with CBT. That emotional wellness is something that all of us deal with. Everyone deals with stress. Everyone deals with anxiety, and particularly as an investor, where you're trying to be as clear and rational as possible, mastering your emotions can allow you to be more effective.
I'll more directly answer your question. When it begins to impair your life is the point at which people recommend that you get help. This is very loosely defined, but when people talk about clinical anxiety, clinical depression; usually what they mean is that it's begun to impair your life and the quality of your life. Everyone feels anxious. When being anxious makes it so you have presenteeism and you can't get your work done -- or when being anxious makes it so you don't let your kid out -- that's a time when you want to invest in this and consciously take steps to improve so you can achieve the things you want to achieve.
Brokamp: I remember it was explained to me as almost like a courtroom, where you have sides presenting evidence. When you have something that you're anxious about, to really look at it as how likely is it that that is going to happen?
Brokamp: Sure, it's likely. Absolutely. And you should take some precaution against it. But to let something that has a 1-2% chance of happening run your life, then it's probably not the healthiest way to go about it.
Shalek: Absolutely. The interesting thing is sometimes when people hear about changing your thoughts, their initial reaction is, "Oh, I'm supposed to delude myself. I'm supposed to just think happy thoughts." In reality, CBT is about seeing things more rationally. It's not about saying, "There's no risk to my daughter," or, "there's no risk to my financials." It's to say, "This is what's actually the risk, this is what I can do about it, and here's what happens if things go good or bad."
It's just about creating a more objective view of the world, and like you said, very much like a courtroom. I often think of it as lawyering my thoughts. I'm going to analyze them, I'm going to break them down, and I'm going to say, "Is this true?" That allows you to approach them more objectively.
Southwick: I'm sure there's a fair amount of confidentiality with people who come to Joyable for help, but are you able to talk about what some of the more common anxieties that you guys hear about? And what are some things people can do?
Shalek: We are fully HIPAA compliant, so of course I can't speak about people individually. I can speak in general terms. We see quite a bit of concern about money. Quite a bit of concern about financial wellness and particularly, as you pointed out, the growing inequality. People who have more money sometimes are stressed about having more money and people who have less money obviously are dealing with the difficulties of that. That's probably the No. 1 thing we see a lot of.
And the No. 2 thing we see a lot of is relationships. Concern about people feeling isolated, or having difficulties with their spouse, or with their children, or something like that. We help folks through the anxiety of how they manage their relationships.
Southwick: I went through the app, and it lets you do some self-diagnosis for what you feel like you need help with. The app was, "It sounds like you need help with focus and breaking the cycle of avoidance action."
Shalek: Did you feel like it was right?
Southwick: Yes, that was the most spot-on for me. I'm a generally optimistic, happy, low-stress person. This is not bragging. I've got a good life. I'm very lucky and #blessed and all that stuff. But yes, and when I saw this I was like, "Oh, I need to Slack Bro. Hey, Bro, check out some tactics for your avoidance actions." Because you recognize that as a thing you have to overcome.
Brokamp: Which one? Avoidance? I mean, there are so many things.
Southwick: Distraction at work. Like being distracted by so many things.
Brokamp: Oh, yes.
Southwick: But to your point about how everyone could use help from cognitive behavioral therapy, this is one of those things that could help everyone who can't, say, focus at work.
Brokamp: Right. And I've mentioned before in the podcast, that I'm an "awfulizer." I'm always afraid of the worst-case scenario. And my wife, who has experience as a cognitive behavioral therapist, has said to me that this is what you do. You ask yourself what the worst-case scenario is, and you think about it. And No. 1, how likely is that really to happen, and No. 2, would it be OK if it happened? Would you still survive? Would the important things still be there?
For me, at least when it comes to money, I'd lose my job, and I wouldn't be able to get a new job, and I'd have to spend all our retirement savings...
Southwick: Are you worried about losing your job?
Brokamp: I have in the past. I have in the past.
Southwick: Everybody at home, send your letters to Tgardner@fool.com and let him know how much you want to save Bro. We'll start the campaign.
Shalek: Bro, you have my support.
Brokamp: Thank you, Pete. Earlier, Pete and I were talking about the history of The Motley Fool, and we've mentioned it before on the podcast. When I joined, we had almost 200 people. We went over to 400 people and then we dropped to 70 people, so it's not like it's impossible for a company to go out of business. We've seen it in the past. Again, it's not an irrational thought, but how likely is that to happen? How likely is it that I lose my job? And if it happened, would I find another job? Chances are probably yes. My life would not end.
Shalek: One great hack that you can use to help you think through those particular thoughts is to imagine a friend was going through what I'm going through. What would I tell that friend? Because we're much meaner to ourselves than we are to anybody else, and you would never say to somebody else, "You're going to lose your job and you're going to burn through your retirement," both because it's not true and because the things we say to ourselves are much harsher. So if you think through it in terms of speaking to somebody else, it can help objectify the things you're going through so you can work through them in a more rational way.