Is money stress making you ill?

Experts explain how financial worries can affect your health – and the practical steps you can take to stay in control. By Katie Wright.

Katie Wright
Monday 03 April 2023 07:00 BST
Money worries can lead to physical health issues (Alamy/PA)
Money worries can lead to physical health issues (Alamy/PA)

With inflation continuing to rise (from 10.1% in January to 10.4% in February) and the price of some groceries doubling over the past year, according to research from Which?, the cost-of-living crisis isn’t likely to end any time soon.

Nor is the anxiety associated with financial pressures – a survey last year found that two-thirds (66%) of BACUP therapists believe cost-of-living concerns are causing a decline in people’s mental health.

The link between psychology and money stress is well-known, but have you ever considered how worrying about your finances might impacting your physical health?

Why does financial stress affect your health?

Anxiety may sometimes feel like it’s all in your head, but stress can manifest physically in many ways.

“It affects every system, from our heartbeat to our breathing and our brains,” says Dr Zoe Gotts, consultant clinical psychologist at the London Sleep Centre.

While a little bit of stress can be a good thing as it motivates us to take action and keeps us safe, in the long-term it can be detrimental.

“Higher stress results in the fight or flight response, which leads to increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline,” Gotts continues.

“These hormones have the potential to suppress the digestive system, the immune and reproductive system and significantly disturbs sleep.”

Signs and symptoms

Some of the signs that money stress is affecting your health are more obvious that others.

“Key indicators include poor sleep, irritability, low energy and tearfulness,” says Simon Coombs, BACP registered therapist, founder and director of Working Minds.

“Some people also have no appetite and do not drink enough water. We – or colleagues – may take more time off work as sick than we might ordinarily experience.”

Gotts says other issues that can be triggered or exacerbated include: “Migraines, back and muscular pain, gastro and digestive problems, insomnia, high blood pressure and heart arrhythmia.”

Unhealthy choices

As well as unwanted symptoms, stress can cause people to engage in unhealthy behaviours.

“For example, overeating, alcohol and drug abuse, plus sedentary behaviours such as watching TV and gaming,” Gotts says.

“These behaviours can worsen a person’s health and finances.”

Eating junk food for the dopamine hit or more coffee to counteract sleepless nights, while not having enough energy to exercise, can create a vicious cycle.

“Poor diet leads to physical inactivity and creates adverse psychological conditions as a result, such as anxiety and depression,” Coombs warns.

“Physical issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease all increase risk as a result of poor diet, little exercise and poor mental health.”

Stress management

To get your health back on track, our experts say it’s a case of tackling the symptoms of stress, as well as the cause, with awareness being the first step.

“It is vital to pay attention to your body and notice when you are feeling the impact of stress,” Gotts says.

“For example, are you finding it tricky to wind down? Are you feeling too stressed to speak to others? Is your sleep disturbed?”

Exercise can be an extremely effective stress-reliever – and it doesn’t have to be strenuous.

“Naturally occurring serotonin enables us to have clarity of thought, more energy and drive to take on life’s challenges,” says Coombs.

“A simple walk in fresh air allows the mind to slow down its constant whirring and provides a light endorphin release, to lower anxiety and encourage action.”

Eating a balanced diet is also important, as is seeking help if you need it: “If you are worried about your physical or mental health you must contact your GP and, if necessary, arrange an emergency appointment at your local surgery.”

Gotts adds: “You may need to access more professional help from a therapist.”

Take control of your finances

It can be tempting to bury your head in the sand where financial problems are concerned.

“Taking action rather than procrastinating, can be incredibly empowering, even though it may feel scary at first,” says Coombs.

“Whether you are in work or otherwise, it is absolutely essential to act. And to do so with as clear a head as possible.”

Take practical steps to stay on top of your finances, Gotts says: “For example, creating a realistic budget and identifying areas where spending may be reduced.”

Seek support

“Remind yourself that, regardless of your position, you are never, ever alone if you are aware of who is out there to help,” says Coombs.

“You may need advice from a financial advisor,” Gotts says, or you may want to reach out to a friend or family member to talk. “Ensure they understand not to add to the pressures for you to spend.”

There are lots of organisations that can assist with a range of money issues.

“Task yourself with calling or contacting relevant organisations that can help or advise,” Coombs says, recommending Stepchange (call 0800 138 1111) for debt advice.

If you’re struggling with utility bills, contact your supplier as soon as possible to discuss your options.

“In the last resort, Samaritans (call 116 123 for free) will take your call and support you in your darkest hour,” Coombs adds.

“But following the guidance highlighted should provide plenty of actions to keep the worst at bay.”

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