Financial Stress: The Physical and Mental Effects

September 18, 2020

Money may not buy you happiness, but studies show that your relationship with it impacts your health.

Did you know money is tied to our basic, hard-wired drive to survive? When that drive can’t be attained, it compounds into stress. Maybe it’s why the age-old saying, “health is wealth,” is more than just a cliché. In the last 30 years, our society has tripled its debt and simultaneously gotten sicker with heart disease, stroke, and mental illness on the rise. Coincidence or are finances partly to blame?

WHAT IS STRESS
Stress is ubiquitous. It can be both positive and negative. Everybody has the capacity to alter their reaction to it. The best way to understand the stress cycle is from a holistic approach – mind, body, and environment.

A quick search for “stress” on the internet will give you a variety of explanations…

• Your body’s response to challenging feelings, situations, responsibilities, and threats.
• The way your mind and body react to changes, challenges, and threats.
• A physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.
• A common feeling that every person experiences at times, resulting from a demand on the brain and body.

A fundamental way to describe stress, courtesy of kidshealth.org, is:
“What you feel when you’re worried or uncomfortable about something. This worry in your mind can make your body feel bad. You may feel angry, frustrated, scared, or afraid, which can give you a stomachache or headache. When you’re stressed you may not feel like sleeping or eating, or you might sleep or eat too much. You also may feel cranky or have trouble paying attention at school or remembering things at home.”

Good stress can be beneficial to your health by helping you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rate, readying your muscles to respond. This type of stress can help you get things done. For example, if you have to present in front of a group of people, the anxiety¬–which physically manifests as butterflies in the stomach and sweaty palms–may inspire you to prepare well before giving the presentation.

Bad, or chronic stress, can affect your overall wellbeing. It happens if stressful feelings continue over time and stress levels in the body remain elevated far longer than is necessary for survival.

All the way back in 1968, Disney–in collaboration with the Upjohn Company–created an animated educational short called “Understanding Stresses and Strains” which suggested the use of common sense to minimize the normal stresses and strains of everyday life as a triangle – physical, mental, social. Anything that affects the mental side, affects the other sides.

The narrator of the Disney short describes stress in the animal kingdom and the “fear” instinct. When we recognize fear, we decide whether we will fight or flee. In either case, action is taken and energy is used up. When the threat is over, there are no harmful after-effects. In the animal kingdom, animals move on without any harmful after-effects.

But humans have more than instinct; we have a superior intellect and a creative imagination. Our imagination creates unreal dangers, or “imagined threats,” giving rise to unnecessary stress and strains. The list of self-inflicted tortures is endless… My boss didn’t say hi to me. My mother didn’t respond to my text. My neighbor gave me a weird look when I drove by. That email from the client sounded like they were unhappy. And so on, and so on.

If stress is carried over into our time to relax, it interrupts the body’s normal rebuilding processes. It destroys rest and brings on psycho-sematic ills – ills in the body produced by the mind. Body chemistry gets out of balance which contributes to a list of other issues.

RECOGNIZING STRESS
When you’re under a lot of stress, you may be more emotional, angrier, or more forgetful than usual. Other symptoms include:

• Anxiety or nervousness
• Anger/irritability
• Forgetfulness/difficulty concentrating
• Depression/crying
• Fatigue
• Desire to withdraw
• Feeling of overwhelm
• Insomnia/difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
• Change in appetite (stress eating)
• Increase in alcohol or drug use

During stressful times, stress hormones can also have an effect on your physical body that manifest as:
• Tension in your neck, shoulders, jaw, or back
• Headaches
• G.I. symptoms such as diarrhea, acid reflux, constipation, or stomachaches
• Increased blood pressure
• Lowered immunity (making you more susceptible to infection)
• Skin rashes
• Sweating
• Dry mouth
• Heart palpitations

CAUSES OF STRESS
Everyone has different stress triggers. The death of a loved one. Being unhappy in your job. Losing a job. Chronic injury or illness. Getting married. Getting divorced. Moving into a new home. Working long hours. Having too much responsibility. Increased financial obligations. Traumatic events such as natural disasters, theft, violence, etc. All of these scenarios can have a big impact on stress levels.

FINANCIAL STRESS
It may surprise you to know that money and finances are one of the biggest sources of stress. Six in 10 adults mentioned it as a significant source of personal stress, according to results from an American Psychological Association (APA) 2019 Stress in America study. This study is conducted each year and each year, money tops the list. It’s not surprising though.

Think about a time you’ve been stressed about money. It can be small things, like that time you lost your wallet or were late paying a bill to bigger ones, like when an emergency or medical bill crushed your credit, you had a large amount of debt, or you spent money irresponsibly. It’s not hard to come up with an example or 10. Signs of financial stress can include:

• Worrying and feeling anxious about money
• Arguing with loved ones about money
• Feeling guilty when you spend money on non-essential items
• Being afraid to answer the phone or open your mail

Financial stress manifests itself in numerous physical conditions like mood disorders, migraines, cardiovascular disease, insomnia, and more. Being in a perpetual state of unease and anxiety about finances–like when a person is living paycheck to paycheck–increases the body’s cortisol levels and puts them at risk for:

• Anxiety and depression
• Digestive problems
• Headaches
• Heart disease
• Sleep problems
• Weight gain
• Memory and concentration impairment

THE IMPACT ON PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH
Stress is normal and, to some extent, a necessary part of life. What causes stress can differ from person to person. But keeping stress in check is important to mitigate the effects it can have on your physical and mental health.

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common effects of financial stress. These two conditions usually go hand-in-hand. Stress resulting from financial struggles such as unexpected expenses, saving for retirement, and out-of-pocket healthcare expenses are the major culprits.

A report published in Clinical Psychology Review found a direct correlation between mental illness and financial problems. The researchers concluded the likelihood of having a mental health problem is three times higher among people who have debt. There was an even higher link between suicide and debt; people who complete suicide are eight times more likely to be in debt.

CONFRONTING THE SOURCE OF YOUR FINANCIAL STRESS HEAD-ON
Not opening bills, avoiding phone calls from creditors, or ignoring credit card statements will only leave you more overwhelmed by your money worries. No matter what your circumstances are, taking action will provide much needed relief. Knowing you are moving forward with a plan can have a very positive effect on your emotional and physical well-being.

Identify methods to ensure on-time monthly payments. Nothing causes stress like realizing a bill is due when you didn’t plan for it. To combat the anxiety that arises from a “surprise” monthly due date, create a Bill Calendar where you note the due date of each bill so you can quickly see at any point when your bills are due. You can also use a reminder app on your phone to setup recurring monthly notifications to help you remember to pay your bills on time.

You may realize a lot of your bills are due around the same time of the month, which can cause challenges in having the funds available depending on when you receive your paycheck or other source of income. If this is the case, contact your creditors to see if you may be able to change your due date to coincide with a time of the month where you have less bills that are due. It can also be helpful to set up automatic payments for the minimum amount due. This will help to ensure that even if you forget about a particular due date, you won’t receive a late fee as a result.

Talk to a financial counselor. One of the best steps you can take to reduce stress, and your debt, is financial counseling. Non-profit financial counseling agencies, like BALANCE, can help to evaluate your situation and review a Debt Management Plan (DMP) as a beneficial option for helping you pay off your debts. The DMP is a consolidated repayment plan for credit card balances that is designed to get you out of debt in three to five years through possibly lowered interest rates and monthly payments. The savings in interest and time in paying back the debt through a DMP can provide a good deal of peace of mind, in addition to only having to worry about one payment per month as opposed to several.

DIY debt reduction. If you prefer to do-it-yourself, you’ll want to create a budget to identify how much you can allocate towards debt repayment. Using the snowball method, you’ll want to rank your loan balances from smallest to largest. Pay more than the minimum amount due on the loan with the smallest balance to aggressively pay down your debt. Pay the minimum on all your other loans. Once the smallest debt is paid off, take everything you were putting toward it and add it to the payment for the loan with the next lowest balance. Repeat this process until you’ve paid all debts. You’ll want to stop adding to your credit card balances or you will never truly pay down the debt.

Adopt a proactive mindset. Plan ahead rather than react. Strive to be in control of your finances as opposed to them controlling you. Take an active role in managing your money by identifying the steps needed to achieve your goal. Then create your plan that includes a timeline for completion (e.g. in order to save $600 in six months, I won’t eat out as much which will free up $100 in my budget that will be assigned to savings.)

Identify your starting point and recognize your progress. Use a journal to benchmark your emotional state by writing down how you feel today when you think about your finances before implementing your plan. Once you begin working the plan, spend time each month reflecting on how you feel about your finances. Doing the above will take time, but as you start to change your behaviors and adjust your habits around money, you’ll see how beneficial it is on your stress/anxiety levels.

TOOLS TO MANAGE THE EMOTIONAL EFFECTS OF FINANCIAL STRESS
When financial stress becomes overwhelming, your mind and body can pay a heavy price. It’s unlikely your financial difficulties will disappear overnight, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ease your stress levels in the meantime and find peace of mind to better deal with the challenges long-term. Here are some tips to help you manage your overall stress and restore calm and serenity in your life.

Get enough sleep. Sleep is necessary. It allows our brains and bodies to rest and recharge. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night are more likely to report symptoms of stress such as irritability and angriness, feelings of overwhelm, lack of interest or motivation, losing patience, or yelling at their kids.

Get active. Virtually any form of physical activity is a powerful stress reducer because it pumps up your feel-good endorphins and other neural chemicals that enhance your sense of well-being. Walking and jogging, gardening and housecleaning, biking and swimming, weightlifting, and relaxation exercises, such as breathing and yoga will refocus your mind on your body’s movements which will improve your mood.

Make time for fun. Keep a sense of humor. Spend time with family and friends. Set aside time for hobbies.

Eat healthy. “Stress eating” is really “emotional eating.” Those feel-good foods such ice cream and potato chips taste good at the time but can actually make you feel worse. Overeating processed snacks can raise your cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

Swap out your worst snacks for healthy options. For a salty snack, stock popcorn. As an alternative to your favorite sugary treat, keep a bowl of sweet fruit, or some frozen berries that can be put into a blender for a quick smoothie or sorbet. Cherries make a good late-night snack because they increase natural levels of melatonin to help you sleep.

Find balance in your life. Set and keep work time boundaries. Understand what is and what isn’t an emergency. Practice self-care by avoiding unhealthy habits such as drinking too much caffeine, alcohol, smoking, eating too much, or using illegal substances.

Meditate. Just a few minutes a day can help ease anxiety. Research shows that daily meditation may alter the brain’s neural pathways, making you more resilient to stress.

Meditation exercise: Sit in a chair. Keep your back straight with your feet on the floor. Close your eyes. Focus your attention on your breath. Place your right hand on your belly and feel it rise on your inhale and fall on your exhale. Focus on a “mantra” by reciting “I feel at peace” silently or out loud. Keep your hand on your belly to sync the mantra with your breaths.

Connect with others. We are social creatures. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid, love, acceptance, and belonging are right behind our basic physiological needs–food, water, shelter–and our need to be secure and safe. At the root of all of our desires is the need to be loved and to belong. That sense of social connection is fundamental and impacts our mental and physical health.

But sometimes when we’re feeling stressed and irritable, our instinct is to withdraw and isolate. Getting social is a good way to combat stress because it offers a distraction and provides support to help you tolerate the ups and downs of life. Meet a friend or relative in the park for coffee. Video chat with a friendly coworker. Setup a Sunday Funday virtual brunch to connect with your tribe. Social connection is everything.

Keep a journal. Write down your thoughts and feelings to release pent-up emotions. Don’t think about what to write, just let it happen. Write whatever comes to mind. It’s called “free writing” and is best done in handwriting versus typing because when you type, you’re thinking about editing and correcting typos along the way which disrupts the creative flow. Whichever method you choose, no one needs to read it, so don’t worry about grammar, typos, and punctuation. Let your thoughts flow.

Listening to music and getting creative. Listening to or playing music is a great way to relieve stress because it provides a mental distraction that helps to reduce muscle tension and decrease stress hormones. If music isn’t your bag, find something that requires you to focus on what you’re doing rather than what you think you should be doing, like gardening, sketching, making arts and crafts, etc.

Seek counseling. You may need to look for outside reinforcements if you feel your ability to cope just isn’t helping to relieve your stress. Therapy or counseling is a good idea if you feel overwhelmed or trapped in a particular situation, if you worry excessively, or if you are struggling to make it through the day or meeting your responsibilities at work, home, or school. Professional counselors and therapists can help you discover new coping tools and identify the sources of your stress.

BALANCE