The Surprising Thing That Made My Anxiety Worse — And How I Fixed It

Photo: Ann-Sophie Fjelloe-Jensen

The year was 2013, and I was lying faceup, my arms and legs extended with my palms facing the sky. Technically this was supposed to be the most relaxing part of my yoga class—I had already moved through each and every sun salutation, attempted a handstand (and gracefully fallen over), and held crow pose for nearly 30 seconds. But my heart was pounding.

Instead of focusing on my breath or visualizing cobalt-blue waves crashing on a faraway shore, my bank account had made an astonishingly bright appearance in my brain. I had gotten an alert that morning that I overdrew my checking account yet again, so $35 had been taken from my (very small) savings account. That sent me on the cringe-inducing, cortisol-raising mission of checking my credit card statement. Yep, there it was: I had accumulated yet another 60 dollars’ worth of interest because I couldn’t pay off my balance in full last month.

Long story short, I was in the hole. Sure, I had my list of excuses: As a journalist just launching her career, my paychecks were small, the economy was still semi-recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, and New York City apartments were shockingly expensive. Truth be told, one of my bimonthly paychecks barely covered half of my rent.

After class, I breathlessly hailed a cab (not a great move for my financial situation, looking back) and pulled out my phone to conduct a Google search on my predicament. This surfaced an article from the American Psychological Association with telltale signs of financial denial: actively trying to put money out of your mind, avoiding bank statements and credit card bills, and avoiding talking about money with family and friends, to name a few. So while I was proudly spending hundreds of dollars on adaptogens and taking an hour every evening to open up my hips in the name of lowering my anxiety, the true cause of my anxiety was staring me right in the face: my finances.

The huge correlation between money and anxiety.

Years of research have found that money is the leading cause of stress in the United States. As for stress levels themselves, they've never been worse—a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Services found that in 2017, stress and anxiety were at an all-time high.

As a result of this, Americans are doing exactly what they should be doing: They're prioritizing their health and well-being as a means of coping, taking regular yoga classes, getting enough sleep, meditating, and eating in a way that lowers their cortisol. But many Americans—my past self included—are completely ignoring one of the largest aspects of the wellness wheel: their financial health.

Meghan Murphy, vice president of thought leadership at Fidelity Investments, explains that this is because while talking about wanting to improve your diet and exercise routine is socially acceptable, being open about financial anxiety is not. "TV commercials, doctors, your parents, and even friends encourage you to do these things for your own good. Exercise and eat right; then you'll feel better and less anxious," she explains. "It's less socially acceptable to talk about finances, yet our research shows that paying off debt has the biggest positive impact on a person's overall well-being than any other action, even exercise. So if you want to reduce stress, start by paying down your debt!"

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before, notes that while after a certain point money doesn't necessarily make us happier, feeling out of control and not having enough money is strongly correlated with unhappiness and anxiety. "Money is kind of like health in that to a very large degree it affects us more in the negative," happiness expert Gretchen Rubin explains in an episode of her podcast, Happier. "Not having health, not having money—you’re very aware of its impact on your happiness. But then once you have it, it’s easy to take it for granted."

How I left denial behind and took charge of my money.

Once I realized how large of an impact my relationship with money was having on my mental health (hey, there was research to prove it), I started making changes. After doing more research and adding personal finance books to my wellness reading list, I set up an auto-transfer to my savings account so I could funnel money in every month, which eventually led to a robust emergency fund. By going on the occasional "spending fast" and practicing zero-dollar days, I was able to pay off my credit card debt. I found a roommate and moved into an apartment I could actually afford, and within a year I felt fully in control of my financial situation. With financial control came a peace of mind that I hadn’t yet experienced in my adult life.

While I'm the first to admit that taking control of your financial situation is easier said than done, trust me—it's worth it. There's nothing like the peace of mind that comes from knowing that not only am I able to pay my rent each month, but I'll be able to afford to fulfill other dreams someday: restorative vacations, a home I love, and a comfortable retirement. You can't put a price tag on that.

Want to understand what kind of impact money has on happiness? Here's the truth about whether or not money actually buys happiness.

And are you ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.

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