The Physical and Mental Effects of Financial Stress

By: Kelly Fiddner, Contributor

Money may not buy you happiness, but studies show that your relationship with it impacts your health.

Did you know money is tied to our basic, hard-wired drive to survive? When that drive can’t be attained, it compounds into stress. Maybe it’s why the age-old saying, “health is wealth,” is more than just a cliché. In the last 30 years, our society has tripled its debt and simultaneously gotten sicker with heart disease, stroke, and mental illness. Coincidence or is financial instability partly to blame?


Stress is ubiquitous. It can be both positive and negative. Everybody has the capacity to alter their reaction to it. The best way to understand the stress cycle is from a holistic approach – mind, body, and environment.

A quick search for “stress” on the internet will give you a variety of explanations…

  • Your body’s response to challenging feelings, situations, responsibilities, and threats.
  • The way your mind and body react to changes, challenges, and threats.
  • A physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.
  • A common feeling that every person experiences at times, resulting from a demand on the brain and body.

A fundamental way to describe stress, courtesy of, is:

“What you feel when you’re worried or uncomfortable about something. This worry in your mind can make your body feel bad. You may feel angry, frustrated, scared, or afraid, which can give you a stomachache or headache. When you’re stressed you may not feel like sleeping or eating, or you might sleep or eat too much. You also may feel cranky or have trouble paying attention or remembering things.”

Good stress can be beneficial to your health by helping you cope with potentially serious situations. Bad, or chronic stress, however, can affect your overall wellbeing if stressful feelings continue over time and stress levels in the body remain elevated far longer than is necessary for survival.

Way back in 1968, Disney — in collaboration with the Upjohn Company — created an animated educational short called “Understanding Stresses and Strains” which suggested the use of common sense to minimize the normal stresses and strains of everyday life as a triangle – physical, mental, social. Anything that affects the mental side, affects the other sides.

The narrator of the Disney short describes stress in the animal kingdom and the “fear” instinct. When we recognize fear, we decide whether we will fight or flee. In either case, action is taken and energy is used up. When the threat is over, there are no harmful after-effects. In the animal kingdom, animals move on without any harmful after-effects.

But humans have more than instinct; we have a superior intellect and a creative imagination. Our imagination creates unreal dangers, or “imagined threats,” giving rise to unnecessary stress and strains. The list of self-inflicted tortures is endless… My boss didn’t say hi to me. My mother didn’t respond to my text. My neighbor gave me a weird look when I drove by. That email from the client sounded like they were unhappy. And so on and so on.

If stress is carried over into our time to relax, it interrupts the body’s normal rebuilding processes. It destroys rest and brings on psycho-somatic ills — ills in the body produced by the mind. Body chemistry gets out of balance which contributes to a list of other issues.


When you’re under a lot of stress, you may be more emotional, angrier, or more forgetful than usual. Other symptoms include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Anger/irritability
  • Forgetfulness/difficulty concentrating
  • Depression/crying
  • Fatigue
  • Desire to withdraw
  • Feeling of overwhelm
  • Insomnia/difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Change in appetite (stress eating)
  • Increase in alcohol or drug use

During stressful times, stress hormones can also have an effect on your physical body that can manifest as:

  • Tension in your neck, shoulders, jaw, or back
  • Headaches
  • G.I. symptoms such as diarrhea, acid reflux, constipation, or stomachaches
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Lowered immunity (making you more susceptible to infection)
  • Skin rashes
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Heart palpitations


Everyone has different stress triggers. The death of a loved one. Being unhappy in your job. Losing a job. Chronic injury or illness. Getting married. Getting divorced. Moving into a new home. Working long hours. Having too much responsibility. Increased financial obligations. Traumatic events such as natural disasters, theft, violence, etc. All of these scenarios can have a big impact on stress levels.


It may surprise you to know that money and finances are one of the biggest sources of stress. Six in ten adults mentioned it as a significant source of personal stress, according to results from an American Psychological Association (APA) 2019 Stress in America study. This study is conducted each year, and each year money tops the list.

It’s not surprising though, is it? Think about times when you’ve been stressed about money. It can be small things, like that time you lost your wallet or were late paying a bill to bigger ones, like when an emergency or medical bill crushed your credit, you had a large amount of debt, or you spent money irresponsibly. It’s not hard to come up with an example or two or ten.

Financial stress manifests itself in numerous physical conditions like mood disorders, migraines, cardiovascular disease, insomnia, and more. Being in a perpetual state of unease and anxiety about finances — like when a person is living paycheck to paycheck — increases the body’s cortisol levels and puts them at risk for:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment


Stress is normal and, to some extent, a necessary part of life. What causes stress can differ from person to person. But keeping stress in check is important to mitigate the effects it can have on your physical and mental health.

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common effects of financial stress. These two conditions usually go hand-in-hand. Stress resulting from financial struggles such as unexpected expenses, saving for retirement, and out-of-pocket healthcare expenses are the major culprits.

A report published in Clinical Psychology Review found a direct correlation between mental illness and financial problems. The researchers concluded the likelihood of having a mental health problem is three times higher among people who have debt. There was an even higher link between suicide and debt; people who complete suicide are eight times more likely to be in debt.


Not opening bills, avoiding phone calls from creditors, or ignoring credit card statements will only leave you more overwhelmed by your money worries. No matter what your circumstances are, taking action will provide much needed relief. Knowing you are moving forward with a plan can have a very positive effect on your emotional and physical wellbeing.

  • Identify methods to ensure on-time monthly payments
  • Talk to a financial counselor
  • DIY debt reduction
  • Adopt a proactive mindset
  • Identify your starting point and recognize your progress


When financial stress becomes overwhelming, your mind and body can pay a heavy price. It’s unlikely your financial difficulties will disappear overnight, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ease your stress levels in the meantime and find peace of mind to better deal with the challenges long-term. Here are some tips to help you manage your overall stress and restore calm and serenity in your life.

  • Get enough sleep
  • Get active
  • Make time for fun
  • Eat healthily
  • Find balance in your life
  • Meditate
  • Connect with others
  • Keep a journal
  • Listening to music and getting creative
  • Seek counseling
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