Coping with Financial Stress

by Dr. William “Marty” Martin

The scientific research is clear that chronic stress has a cumulative and deleterious effect on how we function over time.

As an example, let’s assume that you experience muscle tension and irritability when you experience acute stressors such as a tightly scheduled day packed with unscheduled interruptions. This sense of feeling overwhelmed occurs at the same time you are experiencing the chronic stressor of having to pay for your children’s $60,000 college tuition bill/expenses every year on top of your other household expenses, and pressures to tuck away enough to retire comfortably.

All of us are vulnerable to manifest this acute and chronic stress in our own way, which is largely not within our control. As the example illustrates, if your points of vulnerability are muscle tension and irritability, then the short-term effects may be limited. Yet the long-term effects could become quite serious resulting in chronic pain, sleep problems, upset stomach from taking pain medications, and frequent fighting with others due to the irritability, pain, and sleepiness you may experience. The key is not to deny the long-term effects.

There are numerous ways to cope more constructively with stress. The options can be divided into three types:

  • Task-oriented
  • Emotion-oriented
  • Avoidance-oriented

Task Oriented

Task-oriented coping, also called problem-focused coping, seeks to fix the underlying situation or event that is triggering your stress response. Reframing, or looking at the situation you face in another way, is an example of task-oriented coping. Other examples include assertiveness and time management.

Emotion Oriented

Emotion-oriented coping aims to release the feelings as a way of positively impacting your emotional and physiological state to eliminate or decrease the negative stress symptoms. This form of coping may not change the triggering event but enables you to deal better with that reality. Many individuals use conversion as a means of emotion-oriented coping because talking about a difficult situation with a companion helps them to deal with stress more effectively. Other examples of coping include meditating and exercising.

Avoidance Oriented

Avoidance-oriented coping seeks to remove yourself from the triggering event or situation. It is the “flight” part of the “fight or flight” response. Examples include the following: going on vacation; listening to music; daydreaming; and repeating positive affirmations.

Individuals who more effectively cope with stress constructively do so by deploying more than one coping technique based upon the event or situation. There is one key question that you should ask yourself when you are in a situation that you feel may be stressful.

When is stress good for me?

On the surface, this last question may be puzzling. How can stress be good for you? Hans Seyle, M.D., Ph.D., often called the “Father of Stress Management,” found in his scholarly work that there are two types of stress: bad stress (distress) and good stress (eustress). He argued that good stress (eustress) was associated with an increase in performance to a point.

In essence, having no stress is not motivating and not associated with a gain in performance. But an optimal amount of stress (which differs by individuals and tasks) is motivating and associated with a gain in performance resulting in optimal performance. Yet, too much stress (which is defined by the individual) results in a loss of motivation and a decline in motivation.  Later, this model was validated by others and known as the Yerkes-Dodson Curve.

In summary, asking yourself questions like those listed below can provide you with the answers you need to more constructively reduce and manage stress—both good and bad—in your life:

  • What is more stressful to me?
  • How does stress typically affect me?
  • When am I most vulnerable to stress?
  • When is stress actually good for me?



Marty Martin, PsyD, is a Psychologist in the Chicago office of The Planning Center, a fee-only financial planning and wealth management firm. 

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