So we all know that having student debt-–-or any type of debt-–-can have a lot of practical consequences, such as:
- Having to allocate large portions of your paycheck each month towards paying back your loans
- And, because of this, not being able to use your money for other things that are important to you, like traveling to see family, saving for retirement, or (fill in the blank).
These practical consequences are, to some extent, realities. We may be able to consolidate/refinance our loans, or get a better job, or get a second job, or drastically reduce our spending—and these are all fantastic ideas that can make a huge difference. However, we can’t get rid of our loans this instant unless we default on them and/or flee the country (neither of which I recommend). However, there are other consequences of being in student debt which are talked about less often, but which are still very, very real, such as:
- Feeling trapped and powerless
- Feeling anxious that you might not be able to pay the loans back, or that you might not be able to pay them back while also saving for the future and taking care of yourself today
- Feeling guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed for having taken out the loans in the first place
- Having to deal with the negative impact that all this anxiety and stress can have on your psychological and physical health
- Not being able to sleep because you are lying in bed panicking about any/all of the above
I know about these because I’ve experienced them all. But my message to you is this:
You may be in debt, but you are not powerless. You may not be able to change the facts of your situation at this very moment, but there is a great deal you can do to change things from this point onward, both in terms of the debt itself and how you feel about it.
Just briefly, here are some suggestions that I believe can be very powerful:
- For me, increasing my awareness of my financial situation has been really important. You can read a little more about my experiences becoming more aware in Origin Story and Knowing is Better than Not Knowing. Awareness very often involves taking data, doing calculations, and making small (or large) changes based on those calculations.
- Please know that you don’t have to go through this alone. You may or may not know anyone in your everyday life who is in a similar situation, but there are a ton of great blogs and resources online, and connecting with people virtually and hearing their stories can be incredibly encouraging. Leave comments here on this blog, or on other blogs, talk to your friends, talk to your family, start your own blog. Whatever you do though, don’t just hang out inside your own head panicking. I know from experience that this is neither fun nor helpful.
- When thinking about student debt, remember that a) the facts, b) your initial emotional response to the facts, and c) the attitude you choose to adopt about the facts are three totally separate things. And the one we generally have the most control over is the third one. So for example, one fact about my life is that I have a lot of student loan debt, and my emotional response to that situation is a mixture of panic and regret. BUT even though those things are true, I can make a conscious choice about my attitude going forward. Am I going to curl up in the fetal position and construct a narrative about how I’m a victim of the system? Nope (although sometimes that does feel tempting!). I’m going to sit down, assess my finances, make a plan, and view debt repayment as the ultimate challenge.
In case you’re interested, a couple of books that have had a substantial impact on my thinking about the psychological ramifications of student debt are:
Feeling Good by David Burns. This book has been a best-seller for decades, and with good reason. It’s about disentangling your thoughts from your emotions so that you can take a more rational and less panicky view of situations in your life that may be anxiety-inducing.
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. She’s a Buddhist nun, so there’s a bit of a religious spin, but I’m not Buddhist and I still get a ton out of her perspective. She talks a lot about the insecurity that is inherent in all our lives and about trying to find lightness and compassion (towards yourself as well as others).
So take courage! The past and present are what they are, but you have a lot of control over the future.
Have you experienced the anxiety that comes along with debt? If so, how are you handling it?
I’d love to hear about your experiences; feel free to comment below!