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Do This to Stop Stressing About Money

Learn three ways to ease your financial anxiety.

Frustrated couple checking their bills

Updated on December 13, 2022

After saving diligently for years, Jessica and Richard* from Ridgewood, New Jersey, were finally able to buy their dream home. “It was big and beautiful, and we put every cent we had 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 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 

Due to both the 2008 recession and the economic downturn that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Jessica and Richard’s situation has become 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 issues 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, associate professor in clinical medicine in the division of general medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York Presbyterian Hospital.” 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,” Dr. Roach says. “But mentally and emotionally, you’re keyed up all the time, and you get problems that are largely in the realm of anxiety disorders.” 

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.” 

According to a 2022 study in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, which reviewed results from the 2018 National Health Interview Survey, financial difficulties led to a higher level of psychological distress in U.S. adults. And in a 2017 study of 454 British students in the Community Mental Health Journal, researchers found that those with financial worries had more anxiety and depression.

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 

Seeking help for anxiety issues can feel challenging, but it helps to start with simple, concrete steps:

Begin chipping away at 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.”

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.” 

Don’t cut healthy habits like exercise or seeing friends in an effort to save money. Things like gym memberships and dinners out with friends may 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 and socializing don’t have to be pricey. 

Check out a local YMCA or follow online fitness videos. Instead of splurging at a restaurant, meet pals for a nightly walk or run and reap the benefits of fitness and friendship at the same time. 

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 completely avoided money problems and the stress and negative feelings that can go with them. 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 Roach. “Never feel badly about seeking help.”

*first names only used for privacy

Article sources open article sources

Ryu S, Fan L. The Relationship Between Financial Worries and Psychological Distress Among U.S. Adults. J Fam Econ Issues. 2022 Feb 1:1-18. 
Richardson T, Elliott P, et al. A Longitudinal Study of Financial Difficulties and Mental Health in a National Sample of British Undergraduate Students. Community Ment Health J. 2017 Apr;53(3):344-352.
Mayo Clinic. Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. March 24, 2021.
American Psychological Association. Stress effects on the body. Created November 1, 2018.
HelpGuide.org. Coping with Financial Stress. Last updated December 5, 2022.
American Psychological Association. How to deal with financial stress during the holiday season. Last updated November 3, 2022.
The Jed Foundation. How To Deal With Financial Stress. Accessed December 12, 2022.

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