How to cope with financial stress affecting your mental health


Money is a hot topic these days; you hear about how expensive everything is, from housing to grocery items. Inflation hit a 40-year high last year. It’s coming down, but it and the pandemic have upended our financial world.

The emotional side to personal finance, though, is often not discussed, and many people are suffering in silence.

But in the privacy of therapy sessions, my patients tell me, a certified financial therapist and psychologist, that their financial situations are affecting their quality of life:

“Thinking about this money stuff makes me feel queasy.”

“You want me to rate my stress on a scale of 1 to 10, but it’s an 11!”

“I feel trapped and hopeless. I honestly don’t know where to start.”

Like my patients, you may be struggling to find stable financial footing and manage your anxiety. But there are strategies you can take to improve how you feel about, think about and behave with money.

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Money is a common source of stress

For many U.S. adults, their financial situation is a source of major stress because of rising expenses and debt.

Financial stress can harm your health and relationships. It can affect your sleep and sex drive and cause stomach upsets, headaches and body aches. It can also reduce the effectiveness of your immune system, making you more prone to illness.

Your mental and emotional well-being can be affected as well. My patients often report low self-confidence, anxiety, depression, anger and feeling overwhelmed because of unmanageable debt, living paycheck to paycheck, financial disagreements with their partners, or other financial stressors.

This stress can lead to behaviors that might make you feel better in the short term but are harmful in the long term.

Some people might shop, or spend money in other ways, to feel better. Shopping can release feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and adrenaline in our brains and bodies. In the long term, though, excessive shopping makes your bad financial situation worse.

One of my patients was drowning in department store credit-card debt. She said, “I know I have to stop going shopping, but I justify it every time. I say to myself, ‘I can pay this off eventually,’ but really, I’m just fooling myself.”

Some other common unhealthy coping strategies include ignoring money problems, sleeping and eating too much or too little, substance abuse, and isolating from others.

Here are some steps I suggest to my patients to help them cope in more healthy ways with financial stress:

Recognize your triggers and spending patterns

If you find yourself shopping, ordering takeout meals or booking pricey self-care sessions when you are stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed, you may be an emotional overspender.

Pay attention to the situations that occur before you turn to spending money. Did you have a difficult day at work or a tense conversation with a loved one?

Open up to a trusted loved one

Consider sharing your money stress with someone you trust and who cares about you. It can help release your pent-up emotions, allow you to consider new perspectives and help identify possible solutions.

One of my patients would get anxious any time we talked about his income and expenses. He would get short of breath, have difficulty concentrating and feel a strong desire to talk about anything else.

Whether you get anxious, frustrated, angry or sad when facing your financial situation, determine what you need to keep these emotions in check. These tips can help:

  • Name your emotions as they arise.
  • Acknowledge that you are not your emotions.
  • Remind yourself that they will pass.
  • Try to replace negative or unhelpful thoughts with empowering thoughts. For instance, one patient would often think, “I’ll never understand this stuff. I feel so stupid.” Instead, she began thinking, “This information is new to me, and I am learning,” which helped her to calm down and focus.
  • Identify coping strategies that don’t involve money, such as breathing exercises, venting to a friend or taking a walk.
  • Set a time limit to work on your finances to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
  • Take breaks to regroup. Exercise, listen to music, play with your children or do another activity that brings you joy.

Create a plan and track your progress

Most people seeking help don’t have a budget or consistently track their money. For instance, my patients with debt often don’t have a plan for paying it off. Having a plan for your money situation and keeping tabs on that plan can help lower your financial stress.

Getting better with money starts with taking care of yourself

If the idea of improving your personal finances or facing your relationship with money overwhelms you, a professional can help. Most communities offer free or low-cost financial help for debt recovery, budgeting and saving. You can also work with a fee-based financial adviser who can give you a financial plan individualized to your needs.

A financial therapist or counselor can help you mend your relationship with money. Financial therapists can be financial or mental health professionals who have additional training in the emotional and mental side of money management. These providers can be found through the Financial Therapy Association.

Finally, if mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression or ADHD are affecting how you deal with money, you could address those with a licensed mental health professional. Find them through your insurance company or online directories. Free or low-cost therapy is offered at community mental health agencies or large universities.

Financial stress can affect you physically, mentally and emotionally. But by recognizing your feelings, noticing your behavior patterns and adjusting how you use money, you can reduce your stress and regain control of your life.

Traci S. Williams, PsyD, ABPP, CFT-I is a board-certified clinical psychologist and certified financial therapist. She helps families improve their emotional, mental and financial health.

We welcome your comments on this column at [email protected].

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