Dear Mrs. Riches:
I am always worried about how much money will be enough in case of an emergency. I am frequently awake at night thinking about how to get more money and find paying bills extremely unpleasant because it kicks up a lot of these same kinds of anxious thoughts. The funny thing is that all this worrying doesn't seem to actually change my behavior much. I don't spend less; I just agonize. I'd like to get out of this pattern and into a better relationship with money. Advice, please.
-- The Worrywart
Your letter reminds me of a saying a friend shared with me once, "All my worrying must be working; 99% of the things I worry about never come true!" From one worrywart to another, I feel your pain. But I'll also be the first person to tell you that excessive worry is misplaced energy that could be directed at something much more enriching.
Most people worry about money at one point or another, but chronic worrying can signify a true problem. Anything can become a source of anxious thoughts, making the world an uncomfortable place to navigate. At its worst, anxiety can be incapacitating, preventing the sufferer from living a full, productive life. There are also well-documented links between anxiety and physical illness, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and migraine headaches.
In your case, you are worrying about something that is critical to modern survival: money. A small and manageable degree of anxiety about your financial health may actually encourage prudence and better planning. But a couple of things in your letter hint at a level of anxiety that is a problem: the fact that you are losing sleep because of your thoughts about money and that it doesn't spur needed changes in behavior. In both instances, you're spinning your mental wheels without the benefit of getting anywhere.
Incapacitating anxiety warrants professional attention, so you should consider seeking the help of a therapist. Common approaches for treating anxiety disorders include cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication, and stress-reduction techniques like guided imagery, yoga, meditation, exercise, and prayer. The good news is that, with counseling to help find the right stress-reduction plan, many of your worry habits can be tamed.
Once you address the psychological aspects of your relationship with money, I'd give some serious thought to getting practical help. A financial planner (a fee-only planner may be right up your alley) can help you with starting a budget, establishing an emergency fund, utilizing techniques for saving money, and planning for your retirement. Having the specifics down in black and white can help you focus on what most merits your concern and attention, rather than allowing you simply to lump all your worries in one basket labeled "money."
Perhaps the advisor will indicate you haven't adequately saved for retirement, for example, and so you can begin to find ways to set aside money to deal with that potential problem. Brainstorming for solutions is a better use of your energy than worry: one will help you achieve the retirement of your dreams, while the other is sure to land you in bed with a headache and a still-empty retirement account.
It will take time to adequately address your anxiety issues, but be proud of yourself that you've taken the first step. Best of luck with taming your worry.
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Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. To get your money and relationship questions answered, send her an email .