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Facing reality a must when dealing with financial stress

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Dr. Steven Cody Dr. Steven Cody
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Dr. Steven Cody is a clinical psychologist and a neuropsychologist with Clayman & Associates.

If something can be described as "the root of all evil," is it any surprise that seven out of ten Americans said that thing (money, of course) was a source of stress?

The economy is still echoing from the effects of the Great Recession, and people are still feeling the impact of several years of stories about mortgages under water, foreclosures, high unemployment and high gas prices. There are warnings of yet another financial crisis, this time involving student loan debt, looming on the horizon. Even for people who did not suffer significant losses in their retirement savings in the recent economic downturn, uncertainty about pensions, Social Security and the like are still more sources of worry.

For the most part, the effects of financial stress are the same as the effects of any other type of stressor. People come to feel anxious and depressed. Physical effects like headaches, sleep disturbance, existing physical problems and ailments become harder to deal with in high-stress situations. There will be a temptation to relieve the anxiety and tension in ways that are maladaptive, such as using alcohol or drugs. 

When the source of stress is financial, there are some specific problems as well. Lack of money can greatly limit access to resources for self-care; this can affect a variety of things including physician visits, paying for medication, maintaining a gym membership and pursuit of hobbies and interests. Some of these have ripple effects. Social connections may be lost as a result of forgoing activities, which means more isolation and less support. Self esteem may take a beating when people can no longer contribute as they once did to their church or to a charity.

One set of solutions is general, consisting of things that are helpful with all types of stress. Relaxation techniques and exercise can be helpful, as can prayer and turning to one's faith. Sometimes people really need to work on actively seeking out life's "little pleasures" to help keep up their spirits and buffer stress. Other methods derived from cognitive-behavioral therapy can help as well. As people become anxious and depressed, their thinking can be altered in dysfunctional ways. They need to be alert to a tendency to catastrophize, for example, fearing the worst possible outcomes long before those outcomes are a realistic possibility. They need to avoid the pessimistic and unduly negative thinking that comes with being depressed. This last item is especially important, because it leads to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that have paralyzing effects. People are less likely to take the actions that are still possible and the tendency toward isolation and withdrawal intensifies.

Another set of solutions is more specific to financial matters. It is often the case that financial stresses reflect a history of not making the best choices – chickens come home to roost, as it were. A certain amount of luck is necessary if we are to avoid unhappy consequences from neglecting to save for the proverbial rainy day and overspending, for example. In any event, coping begins with honest appraisal of the realities. This starts with taking stock: what are our resources, behaviors, needs, wants and priorities. Behaviors may be much less obvious than they seem, and people are often surprised by what they learn about their habits when they take some time to closely track their spending and see where their money goes. Distinguishing between needs and wants helps set the stage for taking action in identifying what our priorities have to be and bringing our behavior into line with it. Planning depends on information, and having a plan is a major antidote to feeling helpless.

There are certainly many Americans whose financial situation is one of real and immediate crisis. There are people who are losing their homes, seeing electricity or water turned off and forgoing necessary medication because they are unable to pay for it. Lots of people experiencing financial stress are not in such dire straits, however, and happily so. This does not make their distress any less genuine or the impact of that distress any less serious. It does speak to the point that financial stress is not strictly related to how much money one has. For many of us, the challenge is more about being realistic when it comes to what we think is necessary, and dealing with the attitudes and beliefs that make it hard to keep lifestyle and behavior in line with resources and options.