Can Financial Stress Cause PTSD? New Study Says Yes

By Julissa Treviño Updated on May 13, 2019

Are your finances stressing you out? You're not alone.
Financial-wellness company Payoff released a study recently that shows about one in four Americans—and one in three Millennials—experience finance-related stress so severe that it can be classified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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In the study, a team of clinical psychologists, neuroscientists, data scientists, and psychometricians evaluated over 2,011 participants.

The symptoms they found were similar to those faced by people in dangerous professions, such as members of the military and aid workers in dangerous areas. These included:

  • Agitation
  • Hypervigilance
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Isolation
  • Feelings of avoidance and detachment
  • Intrusive thoughts

In this group, a clear connection was found between this cluster of symptoms and financial issues. And it’s no wonder.

Student loan debt has exceeded $1.48 trillion, with over $74.9 billion of that in default. Add to that skyrocketing credit card and medical debt, stagnant wages, and underemployment, and it’s not a surprise so many people are stressed about money.

So what do you do if some of these symptoms look painfully familiar? Here are a few ideas.

Self-care in the age of debt

You don’t need to have full-fledged PTSD to be legitimately stressed about money—although if you do, that’s not as unusual as you’d think. Getting professional help for these symptoms is a good idea—but not always possible when your health insurance situation isn’t ideal.

In the meantime, here are a few things you can do to deal with stress symptoms.

Practice meditation

Real talk: every time I try to meditate, I fall asleep. I’m probably doing it wrong.

You can learn to do it right, though. And it’s worth it. Studies show that meditation boosts your immune system, reduces anxiety and depression, improves chronic pain, and even decreases inflammation—right down to the cellular level.

There are lots of apps you can use to learn and practice meditation. A few to check out include Aura, Breethe, Buddhify, and Headspace.  

Get your exercise on

Exercise can really help with PTSD stress symptoms.

One of those symptoms is a freeze response—you might feel physically frozen or mentally stuck. Exercise stimulates your nervous symptoms, boosts your endorphins, refocuses your thoughts, and makes you feel powerful.

And it doesn’t have to be physically vigorous to make a difference. Rhythmic exercise—the kind that gets your arms and legs moving—is effective at all intensity levels. Try walking, running, dancing, swimming, or yoga.

If it feels good to act out your frustrations, try boxing, martial arts, or weight training. And rock climbing is a great idea if you’re looking for exercise that demands every ounce of physical and mental concentration.

Spending time outdoors can also have a mentally beneficial effect. Give hiking, mountain biking, boating, or skiing a try.

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Get a handle on your finances

One common symptom of PTSD—including major financial stress—is a feeling of overwhelming helplessness. Restoring a sense of control is key to managing your stress.

If you’ve been avoiding taking a hard, unflinching look at your finances, now may be the time to do it. If you aren’t sure who holds all your student loans or how much you owe, track that information down. (Here's how.)

Then audit your income and spending. Figure out what you make in a typical month—this may be an average of several months if your income is uneven. Then add up what you spend on essentials—food, housing, utilities, transportation, meds, and so on.

That’s your non-negotiable spending. Then take a look at what else you spend money on—entertainment, meals out, and other optional purchases.

Figure out what you can scale back on. Cutting out your daily latte habit is easy, but reducing bigger bills might require a lifestyle change. Ask yourself the hard questions: does it make sense to move to a cheaper place or take on a roommate? Should you sell your car?

See also: Should You Move Back Home at 30 to Get Out of Debt?

One easy change to make: call your Internet and phone providers and see if they’ll lower your bill. Threaten to move to a competitor. It works a surprising amount of the time.

Another savvy financial move that could save you a lot? Refinance your student loans. Getting a lower interest rate could make your payments easier to manage.

Once you have a handle on how much you make, how much discretionary income you have, how much debt you’re carrying, and steps you can take to reduce expenses, take a harder look at reducing your debt. One effective tactic? The avalanche method

You could, theoretically, save hundreds a month by refinancing your student loans. Hit up Refi Ready to see for sure.

Published in: Financial Freedom

About the Author
Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. Her work has appeared in BBC Future, CityLab, Columbia Journalism Review, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, Teen Vogue and other publications. She enjoys traveling, playing with makeup, biking and trying new food. Follow her @JulissaTrevino. Read more by Julissa Treviño