Financial Stress Leads to Symptoms of Depression, PTSD

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 American adults suffer from some form of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The origins of mental illness are varied and complex. There are a nearly limitless number of reasons why mental illness happens, from biological causes to environmental influences.

One contributing factor that has the potential to impact nearly everyone at some point in their life is personal finance. Researchers have repeatedly found a clear link between mental and financial health.

In many instances, that link is cyclical – poor financial health leads to poor mental health, which leads to increasingly poor financial health, and so on. But researchers have also concluded that mental health issues – including depression, anxiety, and certain forms of psychosis – are three times more likely to occur when an individual is in debt.

Additionally, a data analysis by personal loan company Payoff found that 23 percent of respondents to a financial health survey reported experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to their personal finances. These respondents admitted to irrational or self-destructive behavior motivated primarily by a desire to avoid the reality of their financial problems.

The implication here is not simply that poor financial health may lead to poor mental health. Much more important is the logical inverse: that taking active steps to ensure our financial health is very likely to pay positive dividends on our mental health as well.

Common Signs of Depression

Are your personal finances having a negative impact on your mental health? That may not be immediately clear.

Per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), these are the most common symptoms of depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, being "slowed down"
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms

Regardless of whether or not your particular symptoms are rooted in financial distress, if any of this sounds like you, it’s important that you speak with as qualified mental health professional.

If you're feeling suicidal, please call 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free, confidential, and available 24/7. 

Steps for Dealing with Financial Stress

If your finances are causing you mental harm, there are steps you can take to reduce the noise, refocus your attention, and start making positive changes.

Figure out what matters the most to you

If your finances are causing you mental distress, a good first step is actually a step backwards.

“Take the time to clearly define your financial goals and understand your values, both as an individual and as a family,” suggests Maura Attardi, MMI Director of Financial Wellness. “Defined goals help us understand if our spending habits are pushing us in the right direction, while our values help us determine if our goals are realistic and meaningful. Also, there may be conflicting values within a relationship or family, which can cause a lot of stress. Getting everything in alignment relieves stress, reduces interpersonal friction, and makes financial decision-making much easier.”

Once you’ve reached consensus on your financial priorities, you can begin to address the specific causes of your mental distress.

“Taking an honest and open look at why we spend money the way we do can also be helpful in alleviating stress and determining the steps we need to take,” says Attardi. “If the issue is overspending, try to determine what inner voids you’re trying to satisfy through spending money, and then replace your expensive coping techniques with something that might be easier on your pocketbook, like free yoga classes, reading, or exercising."

Begin the conversation with someone you trust

“In addition, finding someone that you can be completely honest and open with about your financial situation can help," says Attardi. "Where we may only be able to see the bleakest possible financial future, a credit counselor, a friend, or an objective family member can help open our eyes to some of the positive options we have available.”

Simply talking about your stresses and anxieties can offer incredible relief. You'll realize quickly that you're not alone – many of us struggle with money in one way or another. But perhaps most importantly you'll be released from the burden of feeling like you're hiding something.  

Make a plan and keep it simple

A little progress can make a world of difference. Simply feeling like things are moving in a positive direction can reduce stress and create a growing sense of contentment.

Once you've identified your values and goals and unburdened your soul a bit, you can get to work. Create a plan to help you achieve your goals. Make the steps small, clearly defined, and reasonable. Set yourself up for success by creating a series of achievable benchmarks that will slowly but surely guide you to your destination. And don't hesitate to celebrate your wins. Feel good about all the boxes you check!

Get private, confidential support

If you need help finding a positive financial path, consider speaking with one of MMI's certified credit counselors. Debt and budget counseling is always free and can go a long way toward alleviating your financial stress by providing you with expert, judgment-free advice and access to helpful resources.

Mental illness is very common and no one should ever feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit that they need help. Once again, if you or someone you know is dealing with symptoms of depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, please seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional in your area. For helpful mental health resources, visit MentalHealth.gov (a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) and NAMI.org.

Tagged in Psychology and money, Self care

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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