Lori, a New York City-based entrepreneur, is no stranger to financial uncertainty given her line of work. But between the monetary sacrifices involved in starting a business, high cost of city living, and the fiscal consequences of the pandemic, financial stress began to take a toll, she tells Bustle. But it's not just the economic burden of her circumstances that make coping with financial issues so difficult — it's also how financial stress impacts your health.
"I feel like I've been hit by such unfortunate luck that a piano could fall on my head," she says. "I feel fear, anxiety, I've experienced depression, and all of that has taken a toll on my body."
Lori is one of the more than two-thirds of Americans struggling financially, according to 2020 data from the Financial Health Network, an organization that focuses on financial health. And the pandemic is compounding that: 84% of Americans are experiencing financial stress due to COVID, per a 2020 survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education. That's not to mention the pandemic's disproportionate physical and monetary effects on women, low-income, and minority communities, thereby deepening the nation's already massive wealth gap.
The consequences of monetary stress can extend far beyond your bank account. Coping with the anxieties about tenuous finances can harm your mental and physical health, says Nawal Alomari, LCPC, a licensed clinical professional counselor. Here's how it can take a toll on your body and mind, and what you can do to cope.
How Financial Stress Affects Your Health
When your basic needs — safety, food, water, and yes, your finances — aren't being met or feel threatened, Alomari says there's a natural stress response. And, she adds, this could lead to more serious mental health struggles: Research links financial stress to depression and anxiety, and studies also show that people in debt have higher rates of depression and anxiety than those who are not.
Financial instability can also mess with your sleep, says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Anne Brennan Malec, PsyD, LMFT. It's been linked to issues like difficulty falling asleep, waking up at night, and insomnia, all of which can mess with your ability to think clearly and cope with difficult emotional experiences.
Research links financial stress to depression and anxiety, and studies also show that people in debt have higher rates of depression and anxiety than those who are not.
Anxiety (including money-related anxiety) can cause physical problems, too, says Alomari. Studies show that financial stress, and the dip in positive emotions that comes with it, can contribute to inflammation. And chronic inflammation can damage healthy tissue and increase your risk for disease: Research has linked it to heart and lung disease, arthritis, diabetes, and asthma. It may also be responsible for short-term consequences of feeling stressed, like headaches.
Financial related stress can even wreak havoc on your digestive system. Alomari explains that it's common to have gas, bloating, nausea, and other digestion-related issues from money worries — which can trigger your body's fight-or-flight response. Since your nervous system helps your digestive system in check, spending too much time in fight-or-flight mode can mess with regular gut function. On top of that, chronic stress can also cause an imbalance in your gut bacteria, which can lead to a host of unpleasant digestive symptoms. That same fight-or-flight response can also spike your blood pressure, which in long-term doses can contribute to risk for hypertension.
How To Cope With Financial Stress
The first step in taking control of your financial situation? Understand where you're at, says Malec. Get the details, like the actual amount of debt you're in or your credit card interest rates — only then can you begin making a plan to solve it, she says.
If tackling all of your bills at once or creating a comprehensive budget feels overwhelming, take your approach to finances in baby steps, suggests Alomari. Just looking at your account balance can be that first small step. "If we avoid looking at the pile of bills on our table, the anxiety builds," she says. Try making small goals to help you gain some control over your financial situation. Download an app to track your spending or make a mini-budget just for your groceries, she suggests — these little actions can help you feel more in charge and quell anxiety.
Dealing with money-related stress doesn't necessarily mean you have to stop all extraneous spending. Alomari suggests figuring out how to minimize versus cut out completely. "You're depriving yourself of something that feels like a treat when we're working hard to try and survive this," she says. "Maybe you just dine out once a week, and your budget is $15 versus $30." Adjusting, rather than changing, allows you to indulge in the things that bring you happiness while also giving you some control over your financial situation, she says.
Avoiding deprivation goes hand-in-hand with self-care. Tending to your emotional wellbeing can help relieve stress from financial concern, says Alomari. This can take the form of simple everyday actions, like taking a long bath or talking on the phone with your bestie.
But sometimes it's impossible to spend any amount of money on self-care, and that's OK. Malec recommends talking about your worries with loved ones for support so you feel safer (and research shows that vocalizing your anxieties, particularly to those who understand them, can relieve stress). Talking with a therapist or life coach can also help you cope with stress or build a financial plan, says Malec. Nowadays, many therapists are offering free services or sliding scale costs to make getting help more accessible.
Nawal Alomari, LCPC, a licensed clinical professional counselor and life coach based in Chicago
Anne Brennan Malec, PsyD, LMFT, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Chicago
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