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Why Is Money Such a Powerful Stressor?

Why Is Money Such a Powerful Stressor?

For many Americans, money means security—and without it, your emotional and physical health can suffer.

It's no secret that financial wellbeing can take a toll on our stress levels, and that money is a considerable source of worry for many US adults. In fact, in one survey from the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly three-quarters of participants reported feeling stressed about money during the previous month—and 22 percent said that money had even caused extreme stress.

Prolonged stress can damage our mental and physical health, and that includes stress stemming from money issues. For example, a study published in 2018 in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences reported that certain indicators of Americans' health worsened during the 2008 recession, including blood pressure and blood glucose levels, especially in younger adults and older homeowners.

Furthermore, financial stress can increase behaviors linked with health problems, such as eating poorly, lack of exercise and substance abuse—and those issues can cross generational lines.

What we're stressed about
There's no single reason Americans are worried about money; there are a variety of causes, including:

  • Debt: Consumer debt in the US tripled between 1980 and 2010. Much of that is related to credit card debt; between 1989 and 2006, it increased over $650 billion (in 2006 dollars), and the number of households with more than $10,000 in credit card debt skyrocketed from 3 percent to 27 percent. Furthermore, student loan debt topped $1 trillion as of 2012.
  • Lack of job security or stable income: Job stability is another significant cause of stress. In fact, a report by the Behavioral Science and Policy Association found it was linked to an increased likelihood someone will say they're in poor health by about 50 percent. Erratic income makes it difficult to budget and plan, and between 2014 and 2015, about one-third of US households reported that their income varied at least 25 percent from year to year.
  • Medical bills: In 2007, 62 percent of all bankruptcies were related to medical bills, up from less than 50 percent just six years earlier. Furthermore, about 12 percent of adults have not gone to the doctor (or considered not going) because they were concerned about money.
  • General uncertainty: More than 60 percent of US adults say uncertainty about the future and their health (and the health of others) is a very, or somewhat significant, source of stress.
  • Caring for family members: If you provide unpaid care for a family member who is ill or disabled, you are not alone. In 2012, more than one in three Americans did. In fact, in 2013, family caregivers provided $470 billion worth of unpaid care. Providing unpaid care can stretch already limited time and financial resources, which can also increase stress.

Who is stressed
It seems we all are. In an April 2016 financial wellness survey by Alexandria Capital, 38 percent of boomers, 46 percent of Gen Xers and 51 percent of Millennials said financial matters are a top cause of stress. The most common concern: not having enough savings to cover emergencies. However, what specifically stresses each generation varies somewhat.

  • Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) worry about too much debt, including high credit card balances and student loans. They also struggle with sticking to a budget and keeping up with living expenses.
  • Mid-career adults, or Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) are worried about a range of financial concerns, from running out of money in retirement to meeting monthly expenses to losing their jobs.
  • Baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are heading into retirement, so it’s not surprising that retirement-related concerns top their money worries, particularly the cost of healthcare. As with younger generations, boomers are also worried about not having enough money to retire and having too much debt.

Social support—and growing older—helps us cope
Not all stress is bad, of course. However, when it persists, or you have few resources to cope with it, it can lead to serious physical and mental health problems. The APA encourages people who are overwhelmed by stress to seek support from trusted friends and family—because social support is extremely important—or a mental health professional. Try Sharecare's Find a Doctor tool to locate one in your area.

The APA also reports that the older you become, the more skills you develop for coping with stress. So, hang in there, and try these steps for coping with your anxieties in the meantime. With time, experience and know-how, it can get better.

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