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4 simple ways to cope with debt-related stress

Don't let your financial problems damage your physical or emotional health

By Michael Berg

If you're one of the millions of Americans in considerable debt, it isn't just your pocketbook that could be affected, but your health, too. Credit card balances, loans and other monetary obligations can blossom into an ever-present source of pressure.

4 simple ways to cope with debt-related stressAlthough consumer debt is trending downward -- in July, it fell 1.8 percent, continuing a decline that began with the recession -- Americans are still facing a daunting $2.42 trillion shortfall collectively in nonmortgage consumer debt -- an average of $10,413 for everyone 18 and older.

"Debt-related stress results in physical symptoms such as sleeping problems, overeating or undereating, increased blood pressure and difficulty concentrating," says Elizabeth Carll, a New York-based clinical psychologist and author who specializes in stress.

"Emotionally, it increases anxiety and depression, and in some cases, it may worsen an existing health problem. On the extreme end, there are cases of suicide tied to a perception of an insurmountable debt."

The good news is that coping strategies can help. While working to turn that mountain of bills into a more manageable molehill, heed these four tactics to prevent emotional overload.                       

1. Be honest. Heather Ropp Beal, an elementary school teacher in Mount Pleasant, Mich., who racked up nearly $155,000 in debt thanks to college loans and consumer debt, initially ignored the escalating problem. "I like to hide my head in the sand and pretend that it's happy and sunny in the world, even when I know deep down it's not," she says. "But I also keep chipping away at the problem so I hope, one of these days, like in about five years, I will be debt free."

It isn't just lying to yourself about your financial situation that can whittle your sanity -- you need to be honest with your partner, too. "Studies have shown that up to a third of us lie to our partners about our spending," says Linda Abrams, senior staff therapist with the Council for Relationships and director of the organization's Spring House, Pa., office.

Whether it's meditation, exercise or participating in sports, find an activity that helps rejuvenate your mind and body.

-- Elizabeth Carll
Clinical psychologist
The solution, Abrams says, is to recognize and explore each other's "financial personalities" and come to agreements on how to deal with fiscal issues. "One person might really need security and that's where they focus, while others are risk takers," she says.  "People need to look at their financial history and what they're coming to the relationship with, not only their experiences socioeconomically, but the lessons they've been taught about spending and saving, secrecy and openness. It's important to acknowledge and work with each other in terms of those financial personalities and decide what compromises each is willing to make."

2. Don't dwell on the predicament. While you should honestly face the issue, obsessing over the circumstances of your situation can be damaging mentally and physically. Michael Thomas, owner of a window-washing business in Longmont, Colo., is currently digging out of $455,000 in consumer and mortgage loans. Last year, as a harsh winter put a sizeable dent in his income, he internalized the stress. "I gained about 20 pounds, had a lot of trouble sleeping and would feel like a loser for not being able to pay my obligations on time," he says.

Thomas also shut out his wife from the pecuniary plight. "I thought I was shielding her from the stress of the situation," he says. "Turns out, however, she was stressing right along with me. She was getting sick of my moody behavior, but now we communicate better about finances and take responsibility as a team."

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3. Get out and get moving. Seek ways to relax, have fun and, as the old saying goes, "get your mind off of it," if only for a while. "Whether it's meditation, exercise or participating in sports, find an activity that helps rejuvenate your mind and body," Carll says. "Spend time with friends and family. When you're in a financial bind, vacations may not be a possibility, but you can look for alternatives locally that you can enjoy together."

Ropp Beal, for one, prefers to pack up in the summer and head north to a favorite Michigan hideaway. "When I'm there, I don't worry about anything except the weather and going out in the boat," she says.

4. Pay it off. It's obvious, yet important -- creating a plan to methodically eliminate the debt is key to your long-term happiness. "The knowledge that you're working on it will help," Carll says. "Psychologically, it's the light at the end of the tunnel that you will be able to eventually overcome this. Hope is a very important component of decreasing anxiety and depression."

A specific strategy doesn't have to be elaborate, but it should be realistic for best results. "At the beginning of every month, Brandi and I review what expenses we're going to incur and decide together what we can save on," Thomas says. "We're paying down balances rather quickly, especially the higher-interest debt. We also look at expenses in a whole different perspective, discerning between what we want versus what we need."

See related: How to cope when spouse's secret debts come to light, Help for bad credit: Relationships, marriage and divorce, Come clean about debts before they damage your relationship, Severe debt tied tp depression, even suicide, Know your credit card personality, Making a budget? Break down the Big Four expenses first

Published: September 27, 2010


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