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How to Cope With Tax-Time Stress

Experts explain ways to avoid the emotional storms of tax season.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Spring is the season when the cherry trees and cottonwoods bloom. For Barbara Halpern, spring is also the season when her workweek blooms to 80 hours or more. Accompanying those long work hours are the colds, migraines, dizziness, and weight swings that plague Halpern and her colleagues at her small accounting firm in suburban Connecticut.

"Everyone is rundown and susceptible," Halpern, owner of Halpern & Associates, tells WebMD. "We hate the spring and nice weather. It's not supposed to get warm until April 16."

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Tax preparers like Halpern may bear the brunt of tax-time stress. But nearly everyone has a reason to dread the 1040 tango. Some hate the math; some hate the feds. And yet others hate having to grapple with one of the great mysteries of life: Where did the money go?

Money and Stress

"Money is a major source of stress on people, and what tax season does is shine a great big spotlight on the issue," Michael McKee, a Cleveland Clinic psychologist and president of the U.S. branch of the International Stress Management Association, tells WebMD. "Money takes center stage at tax time, even if you might have been able to push it to the wings the rest of the year."

A 2004 survey sponsored by the American Psychological Association found that nearly three-quarters of Americans cited money as a significant source of stress. Money is also consistently among the top causes of marital contention, says Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist and financial self-help author based in Washington, D.C.

The Emotional Toll of Taxes

Often, one partner in a marriage is a spender who avoids any discussion of money, while the other partner is a saver and a worrier, Mellan tells WebMD. The result is resentment at tax time, when both partners must examine how their habits are affecting progress toward their financial goals.

Fear of the government also emerges at tax time. Some clients of financial counselor Karen McCall are so afraid of the IRS that they won't take even the most innocuous deduction. "They're paralyzed because the IRS is an authority figure, and if they have unresolved issues around authority figures in their lives, that can cause a lot of fear."

For some unlucky taxpayers that fear is understandable. McKee says people who have been through audits can suffer from posttraumatic stress syndrome for years afterward during tax season.

Stress-Relieving Tips

Herewith, a few tips for stressed-out taxpayers:

  • To avoid last-minute stress, file early and break up the job into little pieces, Mellan suggests. Do your taxes while listening to music or whatever else makes you feel relaxed.

  • For filers with math anxiety, Mellan recommends hiring a preparer or investing in tax software. Tax software typically collects information through an "interview" and the computer does all the calculations.

  • Fractious couples should strategize on ways to avoid chronic money fights, Mellan says. For example, try communicating financial information through notes or other modes that won't carry an accusatory tone.

  • McCall suggests channeling tax-time stress into a resolution to track your finances more carefully. Better money management is the best way to avoid unpleasant surprises each year, she says.

  • Finally, if you're feeling overwhelmed, you can turn to your buddies at the IRS. Options include filing an extension or setting up an installment plan for tax payment. For more details, visit the IRS website at www.irs.gov.
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