Being in debt, and all the worry, shame and fear that can come with it, can have a measurable effect on your mental health. Money was the most commonly cited source of stress among adults — more often than personal relationships or work — according to a 2018 survey by Northwestern Mutual, a life insurance and financial planning company.
How debt affects an individual greatly depends on your personal circumstances, like the amount of debt you’re in and your access to resources that can help, says Megan Ford, a couples and financial therapist at the University of Georgia and coordinator of the ASPIRE Clinic, which provides free and low-cost mental health and financial counseling in Athens, Ga.
No matter how overwhelmed you feel, there is support available, often at no cost.
How debt can affect your mental health
A 2013 Northwestern University study of 8,400 respondents between 24 and 32 years old showed that more debt is associated with higher levels of stress and depression. Even if you don’t feel overwhelmed, concerns about money can affect your ability to experience a restful night’s sleep, Ford says, which can impact how well you function at work and how well you interact with loved ones.
Debt can even have an impact on physical health. In the Northwestern analysis, those with debt reported worse general health on a survey question rating their current physical health. Perhaps even more telling, “subjective relative debt” — meaning how indebted a person felt they were — was connected to higher levels of blood pressure. That means that feeling worried about debt may have a direct impact on not just mental, but also physical well-being.
How to get help
When you’re already anxious about paying bills, it can be especially difficult to seek out help that may cost money you don’t have. It may keep you from making doctor’s appointments, for instance, that could help you feel better. But that there are free and inexpensive resources available.
To start, take stock of whether you’re able to manage day-to-day tasks. If stress, anxiety or depression is keeping you from being able to function, your first stop should be finding a mental health professional who can understand what you’re going through and help address your symptoms, Ford says.
You may be able to access free counseling sessions through an employee assistance program at work; ask your human resources representative or benefits administrator what’s available. Even if local therapists appear to be too expensive, ask if they use a sliding scale for payment or if they provide a limited number of pro bono or discounted sessions.
Financial therapy is a growing field of practitioners with expertise in both mental health counseling and financial advising. You can search for a local financial therapist and learn more about what they offer at the Financial Therapy Association’s website. Check each potential therapist’s educational background and expertise to make sure they’re in line with what you need.
When dealing with stress and anxiety, meditation and mindfulness can be useful additions to therapy with a professional. There are many free apps and online programs available, or look into free local classes you can take.
How to gain control of your debt
To start the process of reducing your debt, it’s crucial to confront the shame you may feel around it and take a direct look at how much you owe. If that feels too difficult to do on your own, consider reaching out to a nonprofit credit counseling agency. A trained credit counselor will provide a free one-hour initial consultation, during which you’ll share your current debts and budget, and discuss ways to make your payments more manageable.
You can also look into do-it-yourself options, like calling credit card companies and asking for lower interest rates, or refinancing student loans. However, if you refinance federal student loans, you’ll lose access to useful benefits like income-driven repayment options, so consider only refinancing private loans to start.
If credit card debt is your biggest concern, you may be able to consolidate your balances using a balance transfer credit card. You won’t have to pay interest for a period of time, which will give you the chance to make a dent in your debt — as long as you’re not adding to it. A debt consolidation loan can also leave you with a lower interest rate, and it covers debts beyond credit cards. A credit counselor can help you think through these possibilities.
The most important thing to remember when dealing with debt is that you’re not alone. No matter how embarrassed, confused, anxious or scared you feel, there are others who feel the same way — and there are experts out there ready to help you get better.