Implicit Memory, Emotions, and Money: or Why Do I React This Way?

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Have you ever reacted to a financial situation in a way that later seemed disproportionate to the situation? Have events like unexpected doctor bill, accidentally unpaid credit card charge, phone call from student loans, declined card et al. lead to responses like hiding the letter, avoiding the call, tears, anger, yelling, fighting with unrelated persons, et al.

Or, alternately, have you ever reacted to a situation that upset you with a financial tactic you later wished you hadn’t done? Did a breakup or stupid day at work lead to a shopping spree, or has a sadness about another area of your life led you to punish/reward yourself by ignoring your finances.

The truth is: any and all of these are common behaviours, and I think looking at them through a lens of emotional health and specifically, the implicit memory function of trauma response can help us de-escalate and enact positive behaviour changes with neutrality and compassion.


WHOA, you might say, I thought we were just here talking about getting paid smartly and making budgets – but there’s more to dig into.
Behind our budgets and planning is an interconnected web of both how the money got to us (an important topic for another day) and how we relate to the money we get. Behind our capacity to work through our money is our way of relating to money, which often stands in as a literal metaphor for our ability to take care of ourselves, survive, and thrive!

The present is not the past. (This is one of those statements that’s easier to say than to absorb.)

If you’re acting in the present in a way that speaks to the past – and only to the past – why? There are many good reasons: habit, ease, repetition, learned behaviour, and trauma.

How does understanding trauma apply to one’s finances? Because one can have had money-related experiences that directly or indirectly impact an actual or felt capacity for survival in a capitalist system. “Traumatic experiences are situations where either our life is at stake or we perceive it to be; or when we witness a threat to someone else’s life.” [citation]

If you are like most people, you’ve had at least a few experiences surrounding money that ranged from threatening to you (or possibly threatening) to witnessing survival threats to others: can rent/mortgage get paid and housing remain stable? Is there money for food? Will I/they “make it”? One may absorb reinforcing stories via media sources which share fearful reports on “the poor” or cast economic surveillance data which demonstrates how “close” one is to not surviving. One may witness their parent or guardian experiencing or fearing survival-level lack and absorb the emotional impact.

To tell a personal story, I grew up in a situation* where there was regularly not money for enough food, and often the fear of not having money for enough food. Now, when I grocery shop I sometimes find myself emotionally responding to the cost of food, maximizing purchases, hypervigilantly tracking my budget, and feeling great comfort in the discount aisle. While I generally think these responses don’t harm my present, I have yet to be able to bring myself to buy organic regularly and I almost always spend to the nearest round dollar: $24.98, $39.79, $34.86.

I like to describe the possible relationships to money people bring to the table as containing one or all of the following:

1. you’ve experienced actual lack of survival resources: lack of money for food or shelter & no place for it to come from
2. you’ve experienced the fear of lack, but not the actual lack, of survival resources: you’ve been close to not having, but you’ve found the resource somewhere
3. you’ve witnessed the lack of resources, or empathized with the fear of the lack of resources (without fear)

There’s no 100% accuracy in psychology, no guarantees that what deeply upsets one person won’t roll off another person’s back. So while there’s no hard quantification I can make, I wonder: how many times can one experience or witness experiences of life-threatening scarcity related to lack of money or available financial resources before the experience will be recorded as a trauma, an “undigested experience that is stored in the body as contractions and implicit memories.”

Ok, you may be saying, so sometimes I’m a little freaked about money stuff. But this is a LOT. And you’re right – you may very well not be traumatized! — but I can guarantee you that someone you know or have seen is and that a survival-level lack or fear of that lack plays into it.


Recently reading about trauma reactions by the brilliant Vanissar Tarakali who I cite above, I was struck by the clear explanations of what happens in a trauma response:

“…after a traumatic experience, the amygdala’s fear message is carried by the hypothalamus to the brain stem. Suddenly the stakes are high! As the reptile brain roars into fight or flight mode, it shuts down the pre-frontal cortex’s ability to discern and respond appropriately to the present moment.”

Our traumas play out in our actions and – especially – in our unexamined reactions. Think again about the experiences described at the top: when we’re acting from unexamined or traumatized places, we often do what we’ve already done, tell ourselves stories that hinge on dependencies from the past, express emotions that are related to past experiences, and go on “autopilot” whether or not it’s a helpful strategy for the specific present.

Why would our relationship to money be any different?
Considering that we and our family structures each navigate an economic system based in threats of or actual scarcity and lack, and behaviours like competition and decimation — I’m frankly more curious how each of our participation
in this system – itself a would NOT instigate, heighten, or reinforce trauma experiences?


So what does one do with reactions that come from a negatively-trained or traumatized experience? There are of course many, many tools and paths to trauma healing, which won’t be detailed here.

And, if within a capitalist system we’re reacting to finances as a kind of trauma #1 how much of that is systemically by design in order to suppress dissent and #2 what can be done to neutralize and calm this response (that isn’t “get more money” lolz duh).

I like to do three things:
1. Give the emotional response some air, love and space to exist. Just because it’s from the past doesn’t mean it’s not allowed.
2. Separate out the facts of the situation, so they can be addressed in a more neutral way, with the wisdom and resources of the present.
3. Therapy (just kidding…kind of)

In my classes, we go through an exercise I call “from ACK to ACCURACY” which walks folks through these steps outlined above (minus therapy…kind of, it’s definitely therapeutic to talk about this stuff!) but you can take these steps at any time when you notice your reactions are not helping you address your current reality – financial or otherwise.

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*shoutout to hardworking single moms doing their best

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