Managing stress like money

Over the last few weeks I’ve been suffering from symptoms of stress – feeling overwhelmed, finding it difficult to wind down and waking in the middle of the night. This was triggered when I started a demanding project that increased both my work and mental load.

Fortunately we can build resilience to stress and protect our mental health. In considering ways that I could do this, I saw a parallel between the way we manage our money and the way we might care for ourselves. It was so similar that I decided to call the outcome my “mental wealth action plan”.

Managing our mental wealth

Building resilience to stress is about being able to recover, finding ways to return to a stable state.

Professional athletes do this; they build rest days into their programme. Time that allows their body to rest and repair. Time where the body recovers and makes ready to perform again.

But it isn't just athletes that need to do this, we all do.

Spending time in the performance zone without corresponding time in the recovery zone can lead to burnout.

Likening it to managing money, we know that the more we overspend, the more debt we end up carrying and that watching our spending means we can afford to do things that we want to do.

Similarly doing things that look after ourselves relates to how well, capable and in control we feel. It stands to reason then that mismanagement of either leads to being or feeling overdrawn.

Staying with the finance theme, if we imagine that inside us we have a mental wealth account, almost everything we do in our day positively or negatively affects it, depositing or withdrawing units. To maintain positive mental well-being, we need our account to be in balance, if not in credit.

9 tips to help balance your mental wealth account

1. Create a budget To manage your money, you need a budget. A first step in creating a budget is to know where your money goes. Tracking your spending can help you work out where you can make changes so you spend less.

An exercise often done as part of a mindfulness course involves auditing your daily activities. You start by listing, in broad terms, what you do in your day from beginning to end. Think about both working and non-working days.

Next you classify each activity as recharging or draining.

Whilst you are not looking for perfect symmetry, is there a way you can do more of the activities that deposit units in your mental wealth account or less of those that withdraw them?

Lots of the things we do in life are habits, mindlessly done on autopilot. Maybe you can make changes to the way you do things or even stop doing something?

Or perhaps rather than trying to crow-bar another activity in you could bring more recovery moments into your day generally – taking a break every 60-90 minutes, going outside at lunch, taking time to be rather than do enabling your brain to rest and recover.

Part of my mental wealth action plan for the next few weeks whilst I am managing this project is to help my brain rest by disconnecting from all tech at 8.30pm.

2. Check your balance LearnVest Founder and CEO Alexa von Tobel sets aside one minute each day to check on her financial transactions. This 60-second act can help identify problems immediately and determine your spending tone for the rest of the day.

It is just as valid to regularly check-in with yourself and how you are feeling physically, mentally and emotionally. Doing so enables you to make choices on what you might need to do to maintain your equilibrium.

3. Know when you have entered the buffer zone Most banks will give you an interest free overdraft. Your body will do the same but you need to know when you are dropping into that zone and find ways to bring yourself back into black. Spending too long here and you will go further overdrawn.

Mindfulness increase our self-awareness and so helps us to check-in and know when we are in the buffer zone. It may be interest free but it is not a place to park in. This is a short stay area only, this is a red zone - bank account or mental wealth account – either way you need deposits.

"When faced with a spending decision, especially a large one, don't assume you can afford something. Confirm that you can actually afford it and that you haven't already committed funds to another expense."

4. Give yourself a limit for un-budgeted expenditure

Sometimes there will be times when you will go over budget. To ensure this doesn’t hurt your wallet too much, you need to set a limit as to what that is.

With our mental wealth too, you need to know your limits – if you don’t know them currently your physical body, emotions and thinking will soon tell you when you have crossed the line.

Increasing your self-awareness will help you recognise when your body is signalling to you. Set boundaries around how long you will operate in that way and stick to them.

I recognised my personal stress symptoms as indicators that I was in the buffer zone and that I needed to take action so that I didn't dwell there.

5. Control your impulse spending Impulse spending is something we all do from time to time. I am a sucker for a red sale label. I see what I am saving rather that what I am spending.

From a well-being perspective I am rubbish at going to bed at a regular and reasonable time even though I know it is good for me. There is always one more thing to read or do. I see what I am gaining – not what I am losing.

Get familiar with your triggers and consider ways to control or manage them. They are likely to be habits, things we do on autopilot or pay little mind to.

6. Have a plan They say you should set financial goals to be prepared for known upcoming outgoings – car insurance, holidays, Christmas.

Similarly we can plan for times when we know life is going to be more hectic, more pressured, more demanding and in those times put things in place to make sure we can recover and so, maintain our mental wealth balance.

7. Regularly contribute to your savings Depositing money into a savings account each month can help you build healthy financial habits. This is sometimes termed "pay yourself first".

The same is true when we build regular activities into our day and week that fill us back up – the results from tracking your spending will help you identify ways to do this.

However I have noticed that the first thing to fall away when I need to work longer hours is "paying myself first".

We might think that due to work pressures that we can’t or shouldn't carve out time to exercise, socialise, read, eat properly, chill but these aren’t optional nice to-dos. These are the parts of our lives that bring us back to balance. Maintaining these activities should be a top priority.

8. Have a diversified portfolio When saving, it is said that you can mitigate risk of loss by spreading your money across different investments.

I have adopted the same wisdom in my mental wealth action plan. I am using a variety of activities to maximise the wealth I create whilst working on this project.

No pushing on with work – taking regular breaks, no desk eating, no bright light after 7pm (lamps not overhead light), no technology of any sort after 9pm, no complex food to digest, no taxing mental tasks after work. As well as trying to stick to a sensible bedtime routine.

In this way I am helping my body to rest and recover both mentally and physically so that I am ready for the long tomorrow.

9. Get help if debt problems are serious If you start to get behind in paying bills then this is the time to ask for help. Seeing that you are in danger of becoming overwhelmed with debt is the first step in getting things sorted before things get really difficult.

The same is true with our mental wealth account.

Notice when your mental health is becoming jeopardised and seek help. The sooner you do, the sooner you start recovery.

As with our physical health, whilst our biology, psychology, social situation and life experiences play a part, we ourselves have an active role to play.

Even though we might not have control over all the outgoings, we do have a say over our incomings.

In the UK, mental health services are available for free on the NHS and there are a number of healthlines and charities.

The Samaritans operates a round-the-clock freephone service 365 days a year for people who want to talk in confidence. You can call them on 116 123 or visit the Samaritans website. In the workplace you might start with your manager or someone in HR. There may also be an employee assistance programme and mental health first aiders who can listen and support you in getting help.