How to Manage Financial Stress
Sweaty palms. Trouble sleeping. Adrenaline coursing through your veins. For many of us, these are telltale symptoms of stress. If these are symptoms you experience while worrying about bad credit, unexpected expenses, saving for the future, or how to make ends meet each month, you are not alone.
According to the 2017 Stress in America report from the American Psychological Association (APA), financial stress is the second most common stressor in the United States. Sixty-two percent of respondents reported experiencing financial stress; about one-third of adults said they worry about unexpected expenses, three-in-10 expressed concerns about saving for retirement, and a quarter of Americans reported “the ability to pay for life’s essentials” is stressful.
Stress can physically and mentally affect your body. When left unmanaged, stress can become chronic, leaving you physically and emotionally overwhelmed and running on empty, which can translate into serious health problems. Learn how stressing about bad credit, bills, and other financial woes can have a long-term impact on your overall well-being.
How does financial stress affect you?
According to the APA, chronic stress can affect almost every system in your body and lead to all sorts of health issues from anxiety to a sluggish immune system. Chronic stress happens when daily stressors are not managed well or outright ignored, as well as in response to traumatic events. The longer the stress goes unchecked, the most likely it is to turn into a health issue like high blood pressure, or contribute to one like depression. Let’s take a closer look at the effects financial stress can have on various parts of your body:
Musculoskeletal system. This system includes your muscles and bones. Stress tends to make our muscles tense up — it’s a way we try to protect ourselves in anticipation of pain or injuries. Usually, our muscles tend to relax when we get our stress under control, but chronic stress can mean that your muscles never get a chance to relax. This can lead to chronic pain and even tension headaches and migraines.
Respiratory system. This is the system that allows us to breathe. Stress can sometimes constrict our breathing, which can lead to rapid breathing or shortness of breath. These symptoms are often worse for those who already have respiratory diseases, such as emphysema or asthma.
Cardiovascular system. This is the system that pumps blood around our bodies, which in turn delivers oxygen and takes away waste. When a stressor is upon us, hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and noradrenaline pump through our blood.
For early humans, these hormones helped protect them and give them what they needed to fight or flee. This response is still with us today, and as a result, our heart rate and blood pressure increases when we are stressed. Usually, once the stress passes, everything returns to normal, but with chronic stress, our heart rate and blood pressure can stay elevated, wearing down parts of the cardiovascular system. This can contribute to an increased risk for cardiovascular events, like heart attacks and strokes.
Endocrine system. Your endocrine system is a network of glands that regulate hormones in your body. When something stressful happens, your endocrine system initiates a response that engages what’s called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which produces steroid hormones like cortisol. Cortisol and similar hormones also work with your immune system to fight infections and reduce inflammation. Chronic stress increases hormone output, which can interfere with the communication between the immune system and the HPA axis. This can lead to a weakened immune system and has been linked to mental health issues.
Gastrointestinal system. Did you know that there is a strong link between your gut and your brain? There is. Chronic stress can cause gastrointestinal issues such as bloating, upset stomach, heartburn, and more. Disruptions in your gut caused by stress can also affect your mood and cognitive abilities, thanks to the gut-brain connection.
Nervous system. Your nervous system is the control center for all your body’s other functions. There are several components, and when stress occurs, they enable the stress response in all the systems explored above. Chronic stress leaves the systems activated, which wears you out physically and emotionally.
Reproductive system. No, not even your reproductive system is safe from stress. In men, stress can cause low libido, sperm mobility, and sperm count. In women, it can pause menstruation, cause irregular or painful periods, lower libido, decrease fertility, and jeopardize the health of pregnancies.
This is all serious stuff! So how do you manage stress? It often comes down to making changes to your lifestyle and behavior.
How can you manage financial stress?
The thing about financial stress is it often comes when money is tight. Some forms of stress management—like regular yoga classes at your local studio—can add up and become expensive. That’s why we’ve put together some budget-friendly ways to manage stress.
Take time for self-care. This can include exercise and meditation, both of which have been proven to reduce the physical and mental symptoms of stress. According to educational psychologist Elisa Robyn, this need not cost any money. There are many free health and wellness programs available for streaming on YouTube, such as yoga, tai chi, weight training, and other forms of exercise, she says. “Because these are used at home, there is no time spent traveling to a gym, and the classes can be broken into smaller segments,” so that you can juggle them with your other responsibilities.
It might not even need to take you much time to feel the effects. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a 10-minute walk may be as good for your mental health as a 45-minute workout. Exercise releases endorphins, which can combat the negative effects of stress.
Robyn also advises scheduling “no-worry” time, which can take the form of meditation. Meditation is a kind of mental practice that helps you train your awareness and attention. This can help you manage your mental state, returning you to calmness and stability. If you do not yet know how to medicate, there are many guided meditations available online for free.
Unplug from negative influences. “The internet, specifically social media, can add to financial stress if you follow people that you are tempted to compare your financial situation to,” says Logan Allec, a CPA and owner of personal finance site Money Done Right. His advice? Unplug—or at least unfollow. “If you are going through a period of significant financial stress, unplugging from social media completely can help,” he says. “Eliminating the temptation to compare yourself to everyone you see on social media when you are in a financially stressful situation can be quite freeing.”
Focus on the positive. “Remember your financial situation is temporary,” says Dr. Randi Nelson, a board-certified pediatrician, financial wellness expert, and author of Ladynomics: A Woman’s Prescription for Wealth and Financial Well-Being. “The key is to remain positive while seeking solutions to your problems and to express gratitude, although you may feel that you have very little to be thankful for.”
Robyn agrees. “Spend a few minutes every day focused on how, at that moment, you are warm and safe and dry,” she says. She said she herself used this sentiment as a mantra, which helped her focus on the positive in life instead of the negative. It’s also important to remember that money isn’t everything and your financial troubles do not define you. Robyn recommends taking time to account for all that you are proud of in your life. “Are you a great parent? Think about that. Are you going to school to improve your life?” she says. “Be proud,” and take stock of your accomplishments.
Identify your specific stressors and create a plan. Sometimes, financial problems can seem overwhelming and impossible to overcome. This doesn’t have to be true. The first step is to identify your individual financial stressors — student loans, credit card debt, unstable budget — and to create a plan to resolve them. Nelson recommends for the plan to involve “taking baby steps to reducing and eliminating financial issues.”
Small steps are easier than giant leaps, which can seem overwhelming. The APA agrees that committing a plan to paper can itself reduce stress, and taking action—like contacting creditors to ask for help and payment plans—can get the ball moving forward if you are stuck in a spiral.
Increase financial literacy. A lot of financial stress is caused simply by not having a firm grasp of the basics. The internet is full of resources to help you learn about your finances, including podcasts, financial blogs like this one, and financial literacy courses, like our very own OppU.
Logan Allec is a CPA and owner of the personal finance website Money Done Right. After spending his twenties grinding it out in the corporate world and paying off more than $35,000 in student loans, he dropped everything, and in 2017, launched Money Done Right. His mission is to help everybody—from college students to retirees—make, save, and invest more money. He resides in the Los Angeles area with his wife Caroline. Follow him on Twitter @moneydoneright.
Dr. Randi B. Nelson is also a nationally recognized author, speaker, and consultant. She is a sought-after media expert regarding children and young adult health issues in addition to a financial wellness expert due to her extensive 14-year career as a vice president in investment banking. She is the author of the No. 1 Amazon best seller Ladynomics: A Woman’s Prescription to Wealth and Financial Well-Being. Dr. Nelson lives and work in Brooklyn, NY.
Dr. Elisa Robyn has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in geology, a PhD in educational psychology, and a second master’s degree in Jewish studies. She has more than 20 years of experience as a professor and academic dean in various institutions. She has expertise in advising students on undergraduate and graduate academic and career pathways. Dr. Robyn also has an active blog, and is the author of two books and several academic articles. For more information, visit elisarobyn.com.