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The Emotional Impact of Filing Bankruptcy & Stress Reducers

It is an unfortunate sign of the times that many people are faced with the reality of filing bankruptcy.

The journey to this decision is a long and difficult one, fraught with struggles, recriminations, what if's, and I should've, could've, would've. In the midst of the struggle to make this decision, people fail to recognize the emotional toll that it takes on them and their families.

We have become a society focused on denying, invalidating or minimizing our emotional world. For years, we have believed that emotions have no place in decision-making. However, we now know that our mind, body and emotions are all connected. It is detrimental for us to discount any of those three areas. As you and your family go through the bankruptcy process remember to be kind, understanding and caring for the emotional part of you that is affected by this process.

We know that stress is a killer. We also know that, when we become stressed, our thinking is confused and distorted, our short-term memory is suppressed, and our bodies are affected. We are living in a time where our belief system is not matching the reality that we live in. Having to file bankruptcy is the last thing most people want to do; however, due to many factors beyond our control, as well as those under our control, one finds themselves in this place. The stressors that have led up to this decision can affect everything about you: your thinking, your emotions, your sleeping, eating, mood, and behavior.

One of the first things that stress does is it disconnects us from our connection to ourselves emotionally and then that is played out in all of our personal relationships. One may become irritable, cranky, and, at times, aggressive. But what really happens when we are stressed?

We have a part of our brain (the amygdala) that is our first line of defense for anything threatening. This is the part of our brain that, if our ancestors had not had it, they would have been eaten by saber tooth tigers or dinosaurs. When we perceive a threat in our environment (including the prospect of bankruptcy), it becomes activated, makes our body go on alert and pay attention in case we need to fight or run.

More recently we have learned that we have another response called the freeze response. If you've ever watched nature programs on television about animals in the wilds of Africa, you see cheetahs chasing antelope. When you watch closely, the antelope collapses before the cheetah has even touched it. This is an example of the freeze response, which we human beings also have. But from animals, we've learned a lot. This freeze response is activated when the best chances for survival are not to run or not to fight, but to just freeze.

In this part of the country, it's like playing possum. Possums under stress play dead. That's an example of the freeze response. If you were to hang around and watch what happens, you'd see that after a while the possum starts shaking, discharging all that energy that got frozen and then eventually would become balanced again and get up and run off. No harm done. Likewise, if a gazelle goes into the freeze response, it stops the cheetah from chasing it. The reason being is that predatory animals’ instinct is to run after things that are running from them and to stop if they're not. They also don't have to attack something if it's just lying there on the ground. Therefore, the cheetah may not decide to eat the animal at that particular time and may drag the animal off to hide it or come back to eat at a later time. It's like it knows that it has food that it needs later so it'll go hide something for the present moment. Other times, it may move the animal to a place in its territory and leave it there while it goes to get its cubs. Either way, the gazelle has an opportunity to come out of the freeze response, shake off all that frozen energy, get up and run off to live another day. They don't seem to be traumatized by the experience, but just go on with their lives.

Humans on the other hand, hold onto stress and trauma long after the experience is over. We can thank our thinking part of our brain for that (the amygdala) whose memory for the negative and traumatic stressful experiences is like an elephant -- it never forgets. When the amygdala goes on alert, it begins to send chemical changes through the body increasing heart rate, affecting glucose levels, shutting down digestion, and sending energy into the muscles to prepare to fight or flight. We’re not conscious of this, but it's estimated that about 1400 chemical reactions start taking place in the body and 30 hormones and neurotransmitters are affected.

The CDC estimates that about 80% of doctor visits are stress related. We can’t do away with stress but we can learn about what stress is, how it affects us, and what we need to do to manage it. The simplest definition that I've ever found for stress is that we experience stress when our experiences don't match our beliefs. For example, most of us grew up with the belief that you pay your bills, you pay them on time, and that makes you a successful, responsible human being. We all want to live up to that belief; however, when, for whatever reasons, we find ourselves unable to pay our bills, we are in conflict with what we believe should be happening and what is actually happening. We are threatened because our world isn't matching our beliefs.

In a stressed-out place, facing bankruptcy means getting a lot of information together, talking to an attorney who's a stranger to you, worrying about what other people are going to think, and facing someone who's going to decide your financial fate. You cannot not feel these emotional pulls; however, there are things you can do to help yourself. Your resistance to the process will only add to your stress. This additional stress will also make it very difficult to not feel overwhelmed by the huge amount of paperwork required by bankruptcy.

So how can you deal with the emotionally overwhelming impact of bankruptcy? First, accept your feelings. Resistance or denial of our feelings increases stress; acceptance decreases it. Accepting your feelings can be uncomfortable, especially if you're not used to this activity. Once you accept that your emotions are normal for what you're going through, that alone can bring some relief. You can't expect all your feelings to go away because this is an experience that you can't put a happy face on, except maybe when it's over.

Once you accept your feelings, you'll find that it'll be much easier for you to focus on all of the tasks at hand that you're going to need to do. When we focus on what we can do rather than wail about what we can't do it is much easier to feel like we're making some kind of progress and not feel so much like a failure.

Stress Reducers. Here's a list of other things that calm stress:

  • Focus on your body and breathe. When we're stressed, we either shallow breathe or breathe too fast. Either way our bodies, and in particular our muscles, are not getting the oxygen that they need. This creates muscle tension and muscle tension creates more stress creating an ever increasing negative feedback loop.

  • Focus on the actions you can take rather than sitting around stewing about how things are the way they are and beating yourself up for how they got there. Focus on what you can do now, not what you could've done in the past. Focusing on the past or worrying about the future increases your stress. The only moment we truly have is now. So focus now on this moment and take appropriate action to complete this process in a timely manner. You will be glad you did.

  • Take short breaks. If the paperwork gets overwhelming, then get away from it for little while (but not too long). Reengage yourself in doing what you need to do. Taking the next action step to completing a goal is a great stress reliever. (Or at least a stress reducer).

  • Remember that this does not have to define you. Who you are is not the bankruptcy. The bankruptcy is something you're going through. It is important to remember that and keep those boundaries.

  • Find emotional support from people who are kind, understanding, and will allow you to express what you're feeling without condemning you, judging you or telling you that you shouldn't feel that way.

  • Our feelings just are; neither good nor bad. Suppressing them will only make them come out in ways that will be hurtful to you or others.

  • This may be a good time to assess your lifestyle and make new goals for your future.

  • Get a massage – medical evidence shows that massage is helpful for stress reduction.

  • Take a walk.

  • Make sure you get five hugs a day from someone who loves you and that you love.

  • Spend time with your pet. It is been shown that pets have a calming influence on us when we are stressed out. Interacting with them can trigger oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps calm down the nervous system in mammals.

  • Sit and watch the stars at night. This can help connect you something greater than yourself that can be comforting and provide hope for your future.

I'm sure you can think of other things that you found effective in the past that have helped you manage stress. We can't get rid of stress. However, by taking positive actions you can move from feelings of defeat and hopelessness to clarity and hope and a fresh, new and better financial future.

Reprinted with permission from Deborah Chelette-Wilson, LPC (2011).

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