Do This to Stop Stressing About Money

Learn three ways to ease your financial anxiety.

Frustrated couple checking their bills

Medically reviewed in January 2020

In 2005, Jessica and Richard* from Ridgewood, New Jersey, bought their dream home. “It was big and beautiful, and we put every cent of ours into the house, and we took on this massive mortgage,” Jessica says. Her husband was starting his own law firm at the same time—and then the recession hit.

“Richard didn’t get paid for a year,” she says. “We had no money. We had to borrow from our in-laws, which was very stressful. I was anxious all the time. I couldn’t sleep. I had heart palpitations. I felt like I couldn’t breathe."

To make matters worse, Jessica turned to shopping as a coping mechanism. “I felt like I wasn’t hurting anyone. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke. I was a good mother, but I was making things even more difficult for us.” 

Money worries gone haywire 
Especially in this post-recession era, Jessica’s situation is common. A combination of job loss and unchecked spending can lead to unpaid bills, mounting debt, collapsed marriages—and major stress. For some, this ongoing stress results in mental health problems like anxiety and symptoms of depression. How? It all comes down to the central nervous system. 

“If you’re under any kind of stress, and financial stress is just one type of emotional stress, then that causes changes physically,” says Keith Roach, MD, Sharecare’s chief medical officer. Your body produces more of the “fight or flight” chemicals that prepare you for a crisis. “These stress hormones make it more likely that you’ll have physical problems with blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and risk for stroke, but mentally and emotionally, you’re keyed up all the time, and you get problems that are largely in the realm of anxiety disorders,” says Dr. Roach. 

Anxiety overload 
Anxiety and prolonged feelings of anger and frustration can produce physical symptoms such as stomach pain, headaches and heart palpitations, making you feel sick, as it did for Jessica. And it’s more prevalent than you’d think.

“When I practiced in Chicago as a primary care doctor, my guess is that about a third of the patients I saw had what was primarily a psychiatric disorder,” says Roach. “There, it was largely depression. Now that I practice in New York, it’s closer to half, and the major one is anxiety. In recent years, there have been a lot more people with financial stress, and it very commonly manifests itself as chronic anxiety.” 

Signs of money stress 
Everyone worries sometimes, so how do you know when your financial stress has become a real problem? “If you’re constantly worrying, not able to get things done, having trouble with your job or spouse, having difficulty sleeping, having difficulty concentrating, not finding enjoyment in the things you used to do, feeling very down, these are things you need to take steps for,” says Roach. “When your mood and your emotions are keeping you from having the life that you want, that’s the time when finding someone to help is appropriate.”

3 ways to ease the pressure 

  1. Take concrete steps to try to solve your financial problems. Ask a close friend or family member to help you sort out debt and develop a smart savings plan. Some people might need the help of a financial planner to get on the right track. “If you’re worried about what might happen if you or your spouse gets sick, work on growing a savings buffer," says Roach. “When people see their bank accounts growing rather than shrinking, that can help an awful lot with the anxiety.”
  2. See a mental health professional. “Start with your primary care physician, but a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker may also be a useful person to see,” says Roach. “We have very effective treatments, sometimes with medication and sometimes without, with psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and talk therapy.” 
  3. Don’t cut healthy habits like exercise or seeing friends in an effort to save money. Things like gym memberships and dinners out with the girls feel like indulgences that you should skip now that you’re watching what you spend, but numerous studies have shown that working out and staying social can vastly improve mental health. And exercise doesn’t have to be pricey. Check out a local Y or follow online fitness videos. Meet pals for a nightly walk or run and reap the benefits of fitness and friendship at the same time. Try 9 healthy hacks to save money.

For Jessica and her husband, downsizing was a big part of the solution. “We sold our house, liquidated ourselves and started from scratch,” she says. “We bought a smaller house in another town and are paying half of what we were paying.” Richard’s business has also improved. “He stuck with it, and I’m so proud of him,” she says. “I don’t shop like I used to. I’m not as materialistic, and I’ve never been happier.”

Very few of us have never experienced money problems and the stress and negative feelings that can go hand in hand. The key is to recognize symptoms of a problem and take steps to feel better. “The human brain is the most complex structure that we know of and things can go wrong,” says Dr. Roach. “Never feel badly about seeking help.”

*first names only used for privacy

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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