Financial stress is making us mentally and physically ill. Here’s how to cope

Years ago, I received a surprise in the mail: a $500 bill for a recent X-ray. I was earning an entry-level media salary at the time (for the uninitiated, that’s equivalent to peanuts), and the shock of having to figure out how to cover an unexpected expense sent my pulse racing with anxiety and my head pounding with stress. 

I was in good company. Research shows again and again that our finances can take a toll on our minds. Money has consistently topped Americans’ list of stressors since the American Psychological Association began running its annual Stress in America Survey in 2007; it contributed to what the APA deemed the country’s “mental health crisis” risk in 2020. At the time, Americans were grappling with the coronavirus recession. They’ve since added the price of food, record-high credit card debt, and little student debt relief to their worries. 

The Chicago-based nonprofit Financial Health Network began investigating the link between our finances and our health last year in the wake of the pandemic, examining literature and running a mass survey. Its latest research installment, released in April, employed a focus group. Participants revealed that money worries weren’t just causing their mental well-being to decline, but their physical health, reporting back pain and stomach aches so painful they couldn’t work. (So that explains my medical bill-induced headache). 

“There’s a clear relationship between mental health and stress and how we feel in our bodies,”  Angela Fontes, vice president of policy and research at Financial Health Network, tells Fortune.

We can partly thank the gut-brain connection for that. Stress and anxiety can manifest physically as nausea, shortness of breath, or stomach pain, to name a few symptoms. 

What’s more: The health-money relationship is a vicious cycle. Poor mental well-being can also negatively impact our finances. Fontes explains that this manifests in various ways—compulsive spending as a coping mechanism; difficulty paying bills while carrying a heavy mental load; and missing work or not performing well, which she says can impact wages and long-term job success.

Consider that depression can result in neglecting even the most basic hygiene like brushing your teeth, says Khara Croswaite Brindle, a licensed financial therapist in Colorado. “We know that money isn’t basic, it requires a bit of mental energy to manage, so being in depression could mean our money is neglected in addition to our physical and mental health needs,” she explains.

Whether the chicken or the egg comes first, here’s how to make sure your physical, mental, and financial well-being are all on the same page. 

Take a break to reset your mind

People fall into one of three categories, says Fontes: financially healthy; financially coping—getting by day to day but not preparing for long-term goals; and financially vulnerable—struggling with nearly every aspect of their financial lives. This last cohort comprises two sub groups: Those who experienced a financial shock (and typically overcome it) and those who have been chronically struggling financially, which increases the potential of long-term mental health challenges.

This can be the result of financial trauma, generational debt or intergenerational poverty, lack of financial literacy, or even a few poor money choices. But the root of any of these money challenges is emotion, says Croswaite Brindle: “Whether it’s anxiety, depression, dread, or avoidance, money is inherently emotional.”

She says seeing a financial therapist to discuss things like money beliefs and spending patterns can help you navigate your emotions so they don’t take a toll on your mental and physical health. “People can change their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with money, putting them on the path to a better financial situation,” she says.

Of course, some of the most financially vulnerable may not be able to afford therapy. Fontes says that many participants in the study coped by taking time to do one thing, like exercise or meditation, to get their mind in a different space that would make tackling their financial challenges feel more doable. And that’s a good place to start.

“A lot of this is about control,” she says, explaining that big triggers for this cycle are unexpected expenses like debt accumulation. “Getting and doing something that sort of helps restore that sense of control really seems to be a critical first step.”

Take baby steps toward saving

Even if your finances aren’t in poor shape, you should still take preventative measures so they don’t nosedive if your mental health tanks.

That might look like sitting down and reviewing your money once a week or examining your savings and investment accounts to see if you can tuck away another $10 a month, Fontes says. 

A savings cushion can help protect against unexpected expenses. It can also help during low points—like having the house cleaned so you can feel better in your environment or ordering food when you don’t have the energy to cook, Croswaite Brindle says. It gives you permission and the means to access what you need or take time off without your household taking a financial hit, she adds. 

“Savings isn’t always about the long game anymore, but about how do we live a comfortable life now while thinking about the future?” Croswaite Brindle says. “Not an either-or but a both-and way of thinking.” 

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