According to LendingTree, the average American household with at least one type of debt owed over $144,000 in 2018. That's one hell of a boulder so many of us carry on our shoulders. Although Americans generally feel positive about their finances, 25 percent say they worry about money "all the time," according to a recent Gallup survey. And according to the American Psychological Association’s most recent "Stress in America" survey, six out of ten adults say money is a “significant form of stress” for them. Persistent stress isn’t good for us either — it’s a well-known, scientific fact that stress takes a toll on your health by raising your blood pressure and contributing to heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Debt stress is relentless
One of the worst things about debt stress is that it's pervasive and can be all consuming. “If there are toxic people in your life there is the option of minimizing contact, but it’s really hard to minimize contact with money,” explains Moira Somers, a Canadian psychologist, professor, author and executive coach with financial expertise based in Winnipeg. “It’s always there. When people are in financial struggle, it puts a cognitive tax on them. Any kind of stress makes us hyper-focused until we can find solutions and implement them. When the problem doesn’t end with one behavior change, our minds just constantly churn away at the problem. It depletes people, can make it harder for them to make decisions in the long run and to engage creatively in problem-solving in other aspects of their lives, because all of their cognitive resources are being devoted to this financial scarcity problem.”
This can eventually lead to a feeling of hopelessness. “You feel like it’s impossible for things to ever get better or there’s nothing you can do to improve the situation, so psychologically and emotionally you kind of curl up in a fetal position and hide in a corner,” says Brad Klontz, CFP, founder of the Financial Psychology Institute, associate professor of Practice in Financial Psychology at Creighton University Heider College of Business, and fellow of the American Psychological Association.
Yet, if you’re willing to do the work, debt stress relief is possible — even if your debt lingers. “Getting to safety isn't as simple as running away from a hungry predator,” says Amanda Clayman, financial therapist and Prudential's Financial Wellness Advocate. “Getting out of debt takes time, and sustained effort, so we will likely have to tolerate the stress for a while. In a sense, debt stress is more ‘noise’ than ‘signal,’ so we have to learn ways to manage it in order to not suffer additional adverse effects.”
How can we best manage stress caused by the debt we carry?
1. Ditch denial
All three experts we spoke with describe denial as the go-to debt stress coping mechanism, which is ultimately destructive. “Financial denial is when you stop paying attention to your finances, you don’t track them and you don’t open your statements. It’s a way to deal with stress — you feel better (about your debt) because you’re not thinking about it,” Klontz explains.
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“The constant stress leads people into denial, and vagueness and magical thinking,” says Somers. “The sense of loss of control is big, the sense of being trapped and also this cycle of shame, guilt and remorse.”
Consolidating your debt with loans can feel great and help your credit rating, but it’s only a band-aid unless you deal with why you got into debt in the first place. “Any breathing room consolidation affords makes people feel like they have they’ve got room to start spending again and, within a very short period of time, they’re often back where they started because they still haven’t dealt with the fact that their income isn’t enough to match the payments,” Somers says.