How debt stress affects your health—and what to do about it
By Rebecca Lake
Reviewed by James Heflin
Jan 07, 2024
Read time: 5 min
Debt is a significant source of stress for many Americans.
Managing stress is important for maintaining good mental and physical health.
Improving your financial situation and seeking therapy are two ways to manage debt stress.
When your physical or mental health is suffering, debt stress could be a culprit. Taking action is one of the best ways to start feeling better. Managing your finances can lighten the burden you feel. Each step you take can bring more relief.
If debt has you feeling badly, you’re not alone. Let’s explore the strategies that can help you handle your debt in a way that supports both your financial health and your overall health.
Understanding financial stress
Financial stress happens when money causes you to feel worried, anxious, or some other negative emotion. Common money stressors can include:
Not having enough money to cover your bills
Worrying that your debit card or credit card will be declined when you try to pay for something
Getting hit with a financial emergency that drains your savings account
Trying to pay down debt, and feeling like you're getting nowhere
Worrying that you're behind everyone else in saving or reaching other money goals
The thing to keep in mind is that personal finance is just that—personal. Everyone's financial situation is different, so what might stress you out may not bother someone else, or vice versa.
That's important to remember, because it can help you put money problems into perspective. And once you know where you stand financially, it's much easier to put together a plan for getting ahead.
Finances and your physical health
Financial stress is not great for your physical health. Sometimes, the impacts of money stressors on your body are easy to recognize, but other times they're subtle.
Financial stress can lead to:
Indigestion and other digestive problems
Increased risk for heart disease or stroke
Memory impairment and inability to focus
Reduced immune response
None of that sounds good, right? And frequent stress over money can increase your risk of developing serious health issues in the long term. That can lead to even more financial stress if you end up in medical debt from health conditions.
You don’t have to have perfect finances to be happy. What’s important is to take control of the financial stressors that may be impacting your well-being, so you can be the healthiest, happiest version of yourself.
Mental and emotional effects of financial stress
Stressing about money can also impact your mental and emotional health. Research has shown that people who experience financial stress are more inclined to experience psychological distress.
That distress can manifest itself as:
Feelings of hopelessness
Serious mental illness
When stress levels get too high, you might feel paralyzed, like you can’t do anything about your financial situation. That could leave you stuck in place, further compounding your stress.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text 988 and talk with someone at any time of day or night. You can also call (800) 273-TALK (800-273-8255).
Sleep disturbances due to money worries
Being in debt can certainly keep you up at night if you're constantly trying to figure out a solution. Losing sleep over your money situation can affect your health in some pretty significant ways. For example, sleep disturbances could lead to:
Type 2 diabetes
Certain types of cancer
Making sure you get enough sleep (we’ll look at ways to relieve stress and make that more likely in a minute) is an important step in the right direction. When you get sufficient, good-quality sleep, you can face your financial situation with a clear, alert mind and focus on finding solutions.
How debt stress can affect your relationships and social life
Fights over money are routinely cited as a top reason for divorce in the U.S. And if you're still in the dating pool, you might find potential partners who see debt as a dealbreaker. That doesn't mean you can't make a love connection if you have debt. But it can add a wrinkle to a relationship if you're not on the same page about how to handle it.
Debt stress can also take a toll on family relationships and friendships. For example, say you borrowed money from a relative to cover the bills, and haven't paid it back yet. So they question you about spending and drop hints about what you owe them. It doesn't always happen, but it can make a relationship uncomfortable if it does.
The same goes if your friends want to include you in things that require spending money. You might feel embarrassed about saying no, or go along to keep up appearances, even if it means adding to your debt.
Not being able to afford a night out or a spur-of-the-moment trip isn't anything to be ashamed of. But you might feel that way if you get caught in the FOMO trap.
Ways you can relieve the pressure of debt on your life
If you're experiencing debt stress, the worst thing to do is nothing. Even baby steps can move you forward and help you get control of your finances. Taking action, even a small one, could help turn a downward spiral around. We each have to drive our own bus, even when it seems easier to wait for someone else to take the wheel. You have the power to break the hold those stressors have over your physical and mental health.
Here are some tips for managing financial stress that might be spilling over into mental or physical stress.
Assess the situation. While it might seem easier to stick your head in the sand, if you don't know what's happening with your finances, stress has a better chance of taking over. So take an honest look at your finances, including how much you bring in, how much you spend, and what you owe. The main goal is to stop avoiding your finances if you have been.
Start with small changes. It's difficult to improve your money situation overnight, but you can do things on a smaller scale and get ahead. That might be as simple as making a monthly budget if you don't have one or looking for one small expense to cut out. You can continue making small improvements that eventually add up to a big difference in your finances. And make sure to pat yourself on the back for even small wins.
Consider therapy. Talking to someone about your financial stress can help lighten your mental load, versus carrying your fears or worries around. A therapist may not be able to offer advice on fixing your financial issues, but they can offer a safe space for venting and processing emotions.
Practice self-care. Adding self-care to your routine can help you reap mental and physical benefits as you navigate money management solutions. For example, you might try meditating daily or starting a yoga practice. Doing a cardio workout a few times a week, setting an earlier bedtime, and eating a healthy diet can also help you feel better.
Consider getting professional help with your debt. Sometimes debt becomes more than you can handle yourself. It can help to talk with a financial professional who can look at your finances and offer solutions. That might include a debt management plan, debt resolution, or another approach.
You can get through financial stress and defeat your debt. Debt happens to a lot of us, but you don't have to stay stuck. Learn to recognize the symptoms of debt stress, and you can manage your health while you're managing your money. The sooner you take action, the faster you'll get your finances and health back on track.
Make a list of your debts if you haven't done so already, including who you owe, the amount, and your interest rates and monthly payments.
Download a free budgeting app to track your income and expenses.
Consider a free consultation with a debt expert to get advice on your financial situation.
Rebecca is a senior contributing writer and debt expert. She's a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a banking expert for Forbes Advisor. In addition to writing for online publications, Rebecca owns a personal finance website dedicated to teaching women how to take control of their money.
James is a financial editor for Achieve. He has been an editor for The Ascent (The Motley Fool) and was the arts editor at The Valley Advocate newspaper in Western Massachusetts for many years. He holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an MA from Hollins University. His book Krakatoa Picnic came out in 2017.
Frequently asked questions
Are there free or low-cost resources available to help with financial stress?
Nonprofit credit counseling organizations can offer help with reviewing your budget and debts, and suggestions on managing your finances. The fee for services is often modest, around $30 to $50 per month after a free initial consultation.
There is no charge to talk to an Achieve debt expert. This is someone who can listen to your situations and explain various financial solutions that might be appropriate. There’s no obligation on your part.
What can you do when you're deep in debt?
Serious debt requires serious solutions. When you're deep in debt, it helps to assess all the possibilities for dealing with it. For example, if you owe a lot and don’t own much, you might be a candidate for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which could wipe out your unsecured debts. Another option is to negotiate with your creditors to accept less than the full amount you owe.
What's the fastest way to pay off debt?
The fastest way to pay off debt is different for everyone. For some people, it’s paying as much as you can every month, following a debt avalanche or debt snowball strategy. For others, it may be resolving debts for less than the full amount that you owe. This is where talking to a debt expert can help you forge the right path.