Tax day: Strategies for managing money stress

The looming IRS tax deadline may be stressful for many Americans. Stress related to tax deadlines can increase reliance on the unhealthy behaviors, such as eating to alleviate stress, making poor diet choices, smoking, drinking and being inactive, that many people already use to cope with everyday stressors related to money, work, personal and family health matters and raising children. Increased reliance on unhealthy behaviors to manage stress can lead to long-term, serious health problems. Specifically, research has shown that for people coping with existing health problems, financial and interpersonal stress can exacerbate their conditions.

"People who cope with stress in unhealthy ways may alleviate symptoms of stress in the short term, but end up creating significant personal health problems over time, and, ironically, more stress," says psychologist Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, APA executive director for professional practice. "Research shows that stress, and the unhealthy behaviors people use to manage it, contribute to some of our country's biggest health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. So it's imperative that people take steps to address issues like financial stressors in healthier ways."

APA's recent Stress in America survey found that money is a top source of stress for adults. Sixty-nine percent of people attribute their stress to money and 65 percent report that work is a cause of stress, interrelated issues that are emphasized for many during the tax-filing process. According to the APA survey, What Americans Think of Willpower, many Americans set financial goals in 2012 — more than half (52 percent) said that they planned to save more money, and 37 percent reported a goal to pay off debt — yet more than one quarter said that willpower (27 percent) or time (26 percent) were barriers preventing them from making changes.

APA offers these strategies for managing financial stress:

  • Define stress. Everyone experiences stress differently. How do you know when you are stressed? Does that experience change during tax filing season or when making financial decisions?

  • Identify money stressors. What events or situations trigger stressful feelings? Are they related to meeting tax deadlines, paying bills, money decisions, financial responsibilities at work or home? Or something else?

  • Recognize how you deal with financial stress. Some people deal with stress by using unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, drinking or overeating. Determine if you are using those types of unhealthy behaviors to cope with financial related stress. Is this a behavior you rely on year-round, or is it specific to tax filing deadlines or other money decisions? Do you turn to unhealthy financial behaviors such as overspending, misuse of credit cards, neglecting bills or constantly borrowing money in an effort to deal with financial stressors?

  • Understand what money means to you. Money is often symbolic of emotional issues that may seem unrelated to your personal finances. What does money represent to you? How might that increase your stress?

  • Find healthy ways to manage stress. Consider healthy, stress-reducing activities — taking a short walk, exercise, journaling or talking things out with friends or family. Try to develop these types of healthy stress management behaviors so that when you're in a financial crisis, you'll have healthy strategies available to help you reduce stress. Keep in mind, unhealthy behaviors develop over the course of time and can be difficult to change. Don't take on too much at one time. Focus on changing only one behavior at a time.

  • Ask for professional support. Accepting help from friends and family who care about you and will listen to you about your financial challenges can improve your ability to manage stress. Financial planners are also available to help you take control over your money situation. If you continue to be overwhelmed by financial stress, you may want to talk with a psychologist who can help you address the emotions behind your money behaviors, manage stress and change unhealthy behaviors.

More information is available on the Stress in America survey.

Further reading

Baum, A. & Polsusnzy, D. (1999). "Health Psychology: Mapping Biobehavioral Contributions to Health and Illness." Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 50, pp. 137-163.
 
Skinner, M.A., Zautra, A.J., & Reich, J.W. (2004). "Financial Stress Predictors and the Emotional and Physical Health of Chronic Pain Patients." Journal Name: Cognitive Therapy and Research, Vol. 28, pp. 6950713.