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The stress around money is damaging to our health. How do we stop it?

A new study from the Great Recession shows that anxiety around money is not helping us. How do we stop worrying?
As the world economy struggles to overcome a recession, a woman takes a smoke break outside the New York Stock Exchange in the heart of New York's financial district on Wall Street on April 8, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Edit by Getty I

Inspirational quotes about choosing to focus on the important things in life—family, friends, loved ones, health—are not hard to find. Plug any number of hashtags into Instagram and a list of empowering memes informs you that money is not the be-all or end-all of existence.


Of course, we’re humans. The hashtag #money, alongside a whole catalog of related tags, reveals an alternative narrative: getting rich requires a get-rich mindset, grinding is necessary for a well-lived life, forgo sleep to chase the dream of private jets, too many Rolex and other gold-themed posts to count, and, obviously, success depends on money. You can find money-isn’t-everything memes by the tens of thousands; get-money-make-money posts are in the tens of millions.

With such competing ideologies vying for attention, it’s no wonder money causes such fervent motivation—and existential dread. A recent study by researchers at the geriatrics and cardiology divisions of UCLA (as well as the economics department at Duke and epidemiology division at Drexel) studied heart health from 4,600 individuals before, during, and after the Great Recession of 2008. The data was collected from the longitudinal Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis [MESA], which took place from 2000 to 20012.

Basing their findings on blood pressure and blood glucose levels, two categories of Americans were negatively affected: citizens under the retirement age and therefore still working; and homeowners over age 65. The chronic stress that concerns over money—for most of us, the lack of it—wreaks on our bodies is a driving factor in cardiovascular problems, obesity, stomach ulcers, and other deadly health issues.

Anxiety is not an aberration; all animals experience it. The quick release of stress hormones when confronted with immediate danger is part of an evolutionary alert system necessary for survival; it is also physiologically exhilarating, if somewhat frightening in the moment. The daily concern over money is a different beast. Often the worries are unfounded or overblown. Worse, many are self-induced: we have plenty of money to survive, but since our culture celebrates financial exhibitionism, we crave more and more, a delusion making us unnecessarily unhealthy.

Clinical psychologist and Northwestern University assistant professor Nancy Molitor says the longer we worry about money without confronting its underlying anxiety, the more we suffer:

It’s a kind of never-ending, seemingly endless loop of problems that get created if the person doesn’t deal with the dilemma.

Two years ago an article revealing 63 percent of Americans cannot cover a $500 emergency hit social media like wildfire. Add in the fact that the 400 wealthiest Americans are in control of as much money as the bottom 61 percent of the population and it becomes apparent we do not practice fair distribution methods. It’s no wonder we’re overworked and overstressed.

It would be nice to put those popular memes about transcending money worries into practice, yet this is tough when you’re not sure if you’re going to cover rent or a car payment this month. Unfortunately, there is no singular answer to this problem. With the current administration, it seems unlikely we’ll make legislative traction for evening the economic playing field anytime soon. Still, small steps can lead to profound results. Molitor recommends the following for reducing stress around money:

Become involved with your finances. I know too many people who have no involvement in their finances. I also know this from experience. Twice I had to take out large loans to pay off credit cards. A decade ago, I vowed to never let it happen again. Since then I’ve only used a debit card and one credit card that I pay monthly, which has kept me debt-free.

Download your stress. The number one reason marriages dissolve is money. My wife and I discuss our finances on a regular basis. Talking about money and associated issues is a necessary step in transparency and honesty, with yourself and those you care about.

Get a second opinion. A financial planner made all the difference for me. While I never made a detailed budget (as I was advised), I did take a hard look at how and where I was spending my money, and, combined with those loans, was able to implement a plan. An outside, unrelated party is helpful.

Make a plan. Speaking of plans, even minor ones, like contributing $10 a week to savings or making lunch at home over the weekend to that work, add up quickly.

Follow the plan, and change it if and when it’s not working. Following said plan is necessary. It’s easy to fall back on old habits. A money program is no different than a diet. If you’re not following it, you can’t expect results. And if you are following it and it’s not working, reinvestigate the parameters of the deal.

Accept what’s going to be out of reach for you. This is a critical psychological step. While we’re biologically built not to only survive but thrive, the intensive focus we place on financially (and therefore socially) thriving creates unrealistic expectations about what’s possible. That stress forces us to miss the forest for the money trees.

Air your dirty laundry. Embarrassment is a powerful deterrent to seeking advice. Yet I’ve found that when I open up to friends about touchy subjects, they respond with their own travails. Sometimes it just takes the courage to start the dialogue. You’ll gauge quickly whether it was the right step, but in my experiences, people you trust are likely to share their stories as well.

Don’t ignore what’s happening on Wall Street and beyond. Money worries might seem individual, but given the statistics cited above, most Americans are struggling. Pay attention to policies being implemented at the local and state level. Many laws are being put in place (or stripped) that are harmful to American workers. Your vote matters. Watching the financial world might seem stressful, but that knowledge will empower you to make the right decisions in November.

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