With the cost of gas and groceries constantly rising and the country seemingly headed for a recession, it’s no wonder financial stress is also on the rise. According to the annual Stress in America survey of more than 3,000 adults, conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly 90% of respondents cited the increase in costs for everyday items as a significant source of stress. Additionally, 81% of people said supply-chain issues were causing them significant stress.
“This is different from what we have seen in past years,” explains Dennis P. Stolle, JD, Ph.D., APA’s senior director of applied psychology, adding that in previous surveys there were no inflation-specific questions because “it’s not always a big issue the way it is right now.”
In February 2022, 65% of people indicated the economy was a major source of stress compared with 58% in June 2021. The study also found that adults 44 years old and younger, as well as Black and Latinx adults, were more likely to report significant stress.
“Our data doesn’t tell us precisely the cause of that, but you can come up with theories. Some of it may have to do with stability issues, who does and does not have access to generational wealth that they could potentially fall back on,” says Stolle. “With the age difference, it could be a matter of perspective in terms of older adults who may remember the gas lines in the ’70s. Whereas for younger adults, this is the fastest inflation rate they’ve ever seen in their life, and they have no reference for it.”
Financial stress isn’t just an economic issue, it’s impacting people’s mental health as well, Stolle continues. While it’s normal to think about money and paying for basic needs, you could have financial anxiety if you tend to think about money more than other areas of your life. Constantly worrying about money could lead to physical symptoms, such as loss of sleep, loss of appetite, stomach pain—all symptoms commonly associated with general anxiety.
“One of the things that can really contribute to feelings of frustration, despair, and even anger are situations where you have no control. None of us individually are going to be able to control inflation,” says Stolle. “When prices go up and you can’t afford the product you might have bought before, that doesn’t reflect on you as a person. That is simply a reflection of an economic reality that is temporary and that you have no control over.”
But there are several ways to take back some sense of control. We talked to experts to learn more about how you can lessen financial anxiety.
Honor your emotions
Thema Bryant, Ph.D., president-elect of APA, encourages people to try emotion-focused coping, a type of stress management that focuses on regulating negative emotions, such as fear, stress, and anxiety.
“It may include talking to non-shaming friends about your financial situation, going to therapy, meditation, exercise, gratitude journaling, and giving yourself permission to focus on things besides your finances,” she says.
After you’ve addressed your emotions, it’s time to take an honest look at your budget. Although you may be tempted to avoid coming to terms with your spending, that can actually cause more anxiety, experts say.
“Knowing where you are financially is important to get a good picture of where you stand,” advises Dr. Devin Dunatov, medical director at Burning Tree, a treatment facility that specializes in mental health and addiction issues. “Sometimes, in our minds, we paint a picture worse than it is, which can increase anxiety. Even if you are worried about money, it is important to regularly check your bank accounts, credit card statements, bills, etc. Having this information is powerful.”
Other problem-solving strategies include creating another stream of income, reading financial literacy books, talking to a financial planner, acquiring skills that will increase your salary, and then negotiating a higher salary at work, says Bryant.
While it may seem counterintuitive to spend money to feel better, treating yourself to everyday luxuries, such as that oat milk latte from the coffee shop around the corner or your favorite yoga class, could help offset some of the stress you’re feeling.
“You get into a vicious cycle where people are not doing the things that make them happy and psychologically healthy because they want to save money,” says Stolle. “If it costs $10 to get into your favorite park, then you may say, ‘I’m not going to go.’ But maybe this is exactly the time when you do need to go to your favorite park, because this is when you need it most.”
Count your blessings
Research has found that expressing gratitude can improve both your mental and physical health. Some ways to start a gratitude practice include meditating, writing thank-you notes to people in your life, or starting a gratitude journal.
“It is such a simple thing to do, to have a little booklet somewhere where every day you write down three things you’re grateful for. And people report how much better they feel after doing that for a few months,” says Stolle. “In a situation like this, where people may be feeling there’s a scarcity of resources, writing down what they’re grateful for could really help.”
Although it may not seem so at the moment, the economy will eventually find itself right side up again.
“This is a fleeting problem, but the longer it goes on, the harder it is to remain optimistic,” says Stolle. “But that optimism is absolutely key for getting through it. It’s key for our individual psychological well-being, and collectively it’s key to us as a society moving out of this economic spot and moving into a better one.”
If you’ve tried other tactics and you’re still feeling anxious about your financial situation, it may be time to seek help from a medical professional.
“You should never be embarrassed about asking for help because the sooner you do it, the better you will feel,” says Dunatov. “Again, it all goes back to having a plan, so you can start to feel in control of the situation.”