How to keep the economic crisis from causing an emotional crisis

If worries about your retirement fund, stock portfolio, or house value are keeping you up at night, you’re not alone. In this poor economic climate, many Americans are reporting that financial worries are their biggest source of stress. It's no surprise that financial concerns can have a powerful effect on our emotions.

Even though money can't buy happiness, it does affect our everyday lives and hopes for the future. You may need to postpone your retirement or cancel plans to travel or own a second home. And when we feel that our way of life is in jeopardy, it's only natural to feel uneasy. Fortunately, you can overcome this stress and regain a sense of control before it affects your emotional health.

Economic Breakdown

According to the American Psychological Association's Stress in America survey, 80 percent of Americans said that the economy was a significant source of stress in September 2008, compared with 66 percent just five months prior (before the financial crisis hit hardest). Also in 2008, more people reported physical and emotional symptoms of stress than they did in 2007. These symptoms included headaches, irritability, insomnia, and fatigue.

Interestingly, more women than men said they were stressed about

  • money (83 percent versus 78 percent),
  • the economy (84 percent versus 75 percent),
  • job stability (57 percent versus 55 percent),
  • housing costs (66 percent versus 58 percent), and
  • health problems affecting their families (70 percent versus 63 percent).

Women ages 44 and up were most likely to report this anxiety. Women may actually be experiencing more financial stress, since they are often responsible for running the household, or they may just be more likely to report it. But men are certainly not immune to financial anxiety, and even if they don’t feel stress directly, they can be affected by the strain it puts on a marriage. People who are concerned about their financial situation may avoid communicating with their spouse, hide bills or spending, or provoke panic.

The Toll Taken

Usually, we think of stress as a bad thing. But at its most basic level, stress is helpful. When your mind senses a dangerous situation, it triggers your body to react with the "fight or flight" response. The brain's hypothalamus signals your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, mostly epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol.

Epinephrine increases your pulse and breathing rate, sending more blood and oxygen to your muscles and brain to give you a jolt of energy. It also contracts your pupils and helps you focus your vision. Cortisol ("the stress hormone") boosts glucose levels in the bloodstream, maximizes the brain's use of glucose, and slows down nonessential functions like those of the digestive and reproductive systems, so that energy can be directed to the emergency at hand.

Your body is well equipped to deal with acute stress, and when a stressful event is over, your systems should return to normal. But a psychological threat, such as financial trouble, is more chronic and prolonged than immediate physical danger. We exhibit the same stress response, but our bodies aren't equipped to deal with prolonged, elevated levels of stress hormones, and a host of health problems can arise. Depression and anxiety are a common result.

Prolonged stress can also increase your risk of unhealthy behaviors such as overeating, drinking alcohol, smoking, not sleeping, not exercising, and compulsive behaviors like gambling or excessive shopping, which only compound any anxiety or depression.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 19 Aug 2013

Last Modified: 06 Oct 2015