ADHD, Income Taxes, and Unopened Envelopes
by Bonnie A. DenDooven, MC, LAC
Many Americans have a visceral, gut-wrenching reaction to the terms "IRS" and "taxes". It is a response quite similar to the way certain war veterans with PTSD over-react to the sound of a car backfiring. For those who suffer from financial disorders, fear of unopened envelopes and misplaced financial records is the norm, but at this time of the year, the fear of the IRS combined with ADHD and unprocessed trauma from childhood could exacerbate the problems. Research now shows that 67 percent of adults who are diagnosed with ADHD have problems with money management (1). The additional mental concentration required to gather and process tax forms sends many reeling into a spiral of shame and panic.
Managing finances is a unique challenge for an individual with ADHD. The major features of procrastination, disorganization, and impulsivity can wreak havoc. Surveys have shown that when compared with their non-ADHD peers, adults with ADHD may be three times more likely to be currently unemployed and forty-seven percent more likely to have trouble saving money to pay bills. Financial disorders follow ADHD adults.
Evidence is starting to show that for some, it is more than ADHD causing problems. Childhood financial trauma is frequently at the root of financial mismanagement. This helps to understand why purely behavioral solutions such as creating budgets, making spending plans, writing down all expenditures, or even putting money into envelopes has not worked for certain people. When emotions are involved in finances and fear dominates, cognitive behavioral remedies must be preceded by affective and somatic therapy to bring resolution to the fear.
The greater effort some people exert at changing their money behaviors by focusing on them, the more chaos they encounter. It may be like hearing a car backfire every time they think about money.
What happens to make a mature adult reduced to feeling powerless over finances and afraid like a helpless child? Peter Levine says in a video interview, "ADHD is a very complex . . . but when I work with kids who have ADHD they look like kids who had trauma." He goes on to say, "When we work with ADHD from a trauma model the symptoms appear to go away. The hyper-arousal, hyper-vigilance, inability to attend to the here-and-now, the inability to focus, those are key elements of trauma."(2) Psychological trauma is a violation of the person's belief that their world is safe and secure. A highly charged and emotional argument between caregivers over money can create extreme emotional confusion and insecurity for a child who may not understand the details of their parents' conversations, but do understand the powerful emotions at a deep limbic level. Children understand the power of money in an argument, just as they understand the power of alcohol over an alcoholic parent. In the world of financial disorders, we are treating many Adult-Children-of-Money-Trauma-Families.
Fighting over money is the one disagreement over all other disagreements that can predict divorce. A 2009 study(3) by Jeffrey Dew, a faculty fellow at the National Marriage Project, Utah State University, showed that couples who disagree about finances were over 30 percent more likely to divorce than those who did not. For women, arguments about sex ranked second with money arguments first as a precursor for divorce, but for men, financial disagreements stood alone at the top for breaking up a marriage. Nothing strikes fear and creates trauma in the heart of a child as severely as the fear of losing a parent. Divorce means a loss. In the eyes of a child, an argument between Mom and Dad can be scary enough, but a resulting divorce co-mingled with the topic of finances can create a situation where any future conversation about money is trauma-bonded to the panic of survival and loss.
The first 30 days of each year, most people receive important tax documents in the mail. Individuals stuck in the FREEZE arousal state of PTSD will fail to open the envelopes for several more weeks and will procrastinate, sometimes until the last minute or after. The "unopened envelope" stack is a familiar phenomenon to speakers at a Debtors Anonymous or Business Owners Debtors Anonymous meeting. Some 12-steppers need to get help to just sit with them while they open the envelopes - to help them unfreeze from the panic.
Many people respond to the perceived financial danger with FLIGHT. While some have a desire to flee any financial discussion, the tendency is never more pronounced, obvious, and identifiable than in the weeks leading up to April 15th. The angst of having to deal with records, receipts, statements, forms, and most of all, submitting to financial authority, becomes a secret horror. Those stuck in the FLIGHT are likely to misplace documents, checks, forms, receipts and writing utensils in an unconscious attempt to flee and get some distance from the task itself - out of sight, out of mind.
Those stuck in the FIGHT arousal state can be expected to take extraordinary risk by literally cheating on their taxes - creating their own private battle and attempting to win at any cost. It is an emotional, fearful fight to end all fights. The fear of having cheated on ones taxes creates ongoing fear of getting caught. It is trauma repetition every time an envelope comes from the IRS.
The most common recommendations of money management do not work for some because each budget, each bill, each envelope re-traumatizes. The therapy required is to resolve the unprocessed trauma and become free from emotions of the past.
Bonnie A. DenDooven
Bonnie A. DenDooven, MC, LAC, a family workshop therapist at Gatehouse Academy, is a former business owner-turned-therapist. The author of the MAWASI© for therapy and healing of financial disorders and work behaviors. She is a former primary and family counselor and assistant clinical director for Dr. Patrick Carnes at The Meadows. Bonnie was schooled in Gestalt therapy and is a member of Silvan Tomkins Institute of Affect Script Psychology, an advocate of Martin Seligman Positive Psychology, and a champion for the initiative for VIA Classification of Strengths and Virtues (jokingly referred to as the "un-DSM").
(1) 2003 - 2004 UMASS studyhttp://psychcentral.com/news/2007/12/18/care-management-for-adult-adhd/1676.html