Money and mental health: Managing financial stress

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Have you ever felt anxious about paying your bills or checking your credit card balance? If your finances are keeping you up at night, you’re certainly not alone. In fact, nearly one third of Canadians report feeling stressed about money.

We spend a lot of time providing honest advice for managing debt, dealing with unexpected expenses and tackling all of the difficult financial challenges that life can throw your way. But we wanted to talk about the other side of a difficult financial situation: the impact it can have on your mental health.

We spoke with Dr. Skye Stephens, Registered Psychologist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, about the consequences that can come with financial stress and how to manage it.

“Stress relating to money is certainly something many people deal with," she says. “Stress levels can vary based on the individual, but for anyone dealing with chronic stress—a longer-term, high-stress state—it can take a toll on both your physical and emotional health.”

Skye explains that for many people, chronic stress can lead to anxiety and depression—not to mention sleepless nights, which have a tendency to make everything harder.

“I call it 3:00 am brain," she says. “It’s those nights you find yourself awake and unable to stop worrying. When you’re not sleeping while in a chronic stress state, it can make you more irritable, it can impact your relationships and have a significant effect on your emotions and behaviours.”

The problem for many people that are struggling with this kind of stress cycle is that in the short term, the easiest solution is to ignore the root of the issue. Skye emphasizes that when it comes to financial stress, it’s best to face the problem and come up with a plan.

“Avoidance might offer short term relief, but it will result in longer term pain. It’s natural to want to withdraw during times of stress, but the best thing to do is tackle the problem. It doesn’t mean you need a solution overnight, but breaking it out into smaller steps can help you feel more in control.”

A good place to start is by asking for help. This can come in the form of emotional support through family and friends and through professional support like your financial expert, and of course, your family doctor.

“Stress and anxiety make us want to withdraw, but in times of distress, leaning on your support system and talking to a mental health care professional can make a huge difference," says Skye. Your doctor can arm you with practical strategies for coping with stress, and like most health related issues, the earlier you do something about it, the better the outcome.”

Self-care can be a helpful tool, too. Never underestimate the power of a healthy diet, sleep, exercise, and down time focused on relaxing. When life goes sideways, these are sometimes the first things to go. Skye recommends free apps like Headspace for mindfulness meditation and Mindshift for relaxation activities.

Finally, it’s important to remember that not all stress is bad stress—in fact, a little stress can even be healthy.

“While chronically high levels of stress can be detrimental, on the flip side, if you have no concerns about your money, that can be dangerous too,” says Skye. “It could mean you’re spending recklessly and not thinking about where your money is going. A little bit of stress that urges you to take care of yourself and your finances is a good thing—even if it doesn’t feel that way in the moment.”

For more information about managing stress and mental health resources in Atlantic Canada, visit the links below. If you or a loved one is struggling with stress or anxiety, please visit your family doctor or a mental health professional.

For mental health support:

  • Federal services: People in Canada can rely on the Canadian Mental Health Association for support, access, knowledge, protection, and progress.
  • Many Atlantic Canadian provinces have community mental health clinics that are covered by MSI. If you are a post-secondary student, you may have access to free counselling services through your university or college. Check with your family doctor for available mental health services in your region.
  • Many insurance providers include coverage for mental health services and readers are encouraged to check their insurance coverage. Psychology Today maintains a list of mental health providers who provide private services:
  • If you are in a crisis, you can contact the Mobile Crisis team 902-429-8167 or 1-888-429-8167 (toll free).