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The Debt-Stress Connection

Gas and food prices are sky-high, the stock market is down, and the housing market is in the doldrums. But can worrying about the health of your bank account really make you sick?

Calming your money worries: Take action and seize control of your future

Debt or money is such a pervasive and difficult kind of stress because it's so interconnected with other areas of our lives, says Kelly McGonigal, PhD. McGonigal is a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University. "Basically, it invades your home, your work, what you're able to provide for your family, and your fantasies for the future. There are studies that show it's not how much money you owe that predicts depression and health problems. It's how much you worry about it."

Seek social support, advises McGonigal, because you're not the only person going through this. Talk to people you care about to take away the sense of stigma and shame. "When people are in debt or worried about losing their home or job, often they will try to hide it for a long time," McGonigal says. "A huge thing with money is the stigma. In this culture, that's a huge part of identity -- what we own, where we live, what we do."

There's a huge difference between active coping and comfort coping, says McGonigal. "Don't fall into the trap of feeling better immediately instead of doing something that's a little bit uncomfortable now. Sit down, get the information, and make a plan. And be an active coper. That way, you'll feel you're in control of the situation -- and a sense of control shuts down the whole stress process."

Here's advice from the experts on how to actively cope with your situation:

  • Put things into perspective by asking yourself: What's the worst that would happen? Yes, you may have to move or shelve your credit cards for the time being. "You may have to make a significant lifestyle change," says Winner. "But it's not life-threatening. Sometimes we act like there is a saber-tooth tiger with his jaws right around our heads."
  • Keep a worry journal. Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle, recommends Breus. On the left side, write down all the things you're worried about. On the right side, write down one solution. The solution could be, think about this tomorrow at 11 o'clock or make a phone call tomorrow that could lead to a new opportunity. Do it for 10 minutes and when you fold the paper in half, close it in your mind.
  • Take the necessary steps for smart financial planning. Opt out of new credit cards by calling 888-5OPTOUT. Organize your financial records, pull your annual credit report, and make a plan with an advisor or your partner to transform your financial life. "The number one benefit to having zero debt is your financial piece of mind," says Khalfani-Cox. "It diminishes the stress, worry, and anxiety. You will have the freedom to do other things in your life."

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Reviewed on August 12, 2008

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