11 Sept 2023 – South Africans are grappling with unprecedented economic challenges and deteriorating household finances. Stress and anxiety due to money worries have emerged as a silent crisis affecting millions of individuals and families.

Financial troubles have far-reaching consequences beyond bank balances and credit scores. They seep into the very fabric of our wellbeing, leading to heightened stress levels, emotional turmoil, and poor mental health.

The second annual Money Stress Tracker (July 2023), which polled subscribers to debt counselling company DebtBusters’ website and platform, attracted more than 35,000 responses. The results indicate that three out of four South Africans feel money stress – 12% more than the previous year. Women in particular confirm the effects of financial stress at home, at work, and on their health. Lower-income earners are the most stressed, while those who earn more have high levels of unsustainable debt.
Psychotherapist and transactional analyst Diane Salters says people facing severe debt threat are likely to feel shame and fear. They may not think clearly and may go into automatic fight, flight or freeze responses.

Unaddressed mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, cost the South African economy an estimated R161 billion per year, according to Investec Focus Radio SA.

“Money worries are not just numbers on a balance sheet. They can bring down the strongest person, leading to mental illness and even thoughts of suicide,” says Shafeeka Anthony, Marketing Manager of JustMoney.co.za, a site that helps educate South Africans to make good money choices.
“People going through a financial crisis can feel that their situation is inescapable and that they have no control. As we navigate these tough economic times, it’s important to acknowledge how deeply interlinked money and mental health are.”

Key symptoms
Stress and anxiety: Constant financial worries can trigger chronic stress and anxiety, which, if left unchecked, can lead to severe mental health disorders. The relentless pressure to meet financial obligations can cause sleep disturbances, mood swings, and addiction.
Depression: Studies show that individuals grappling with financial difficulties are at a higher risk of developing depression. The overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness can lead to a downward spiral of emotional despair.
Relationship strain: Financial issues can strain personal relationships. Arguments about money are one of the leading causes of relationship breakdown, contributing to emotional turmoil for everyone involved.
Physical disease: The toll of financial stress isn’t limited to mental health. It can manifest physically, leading to high blood pressure, heart problems, and a compromised immune system, making people more susceptible to illness.

Tackling money stress

“Financial struggles can affect anyone, regardless of background or income level,” says Anthony. “By acknowledging the impact of tough economic conditions and poor financial habits on mental health, we can break the stigma, provide support, and build a healthier, more resilient society.”
The following steps can help to reduce money and mental health struggles.
Assess your financial situation: List your income, expenses, debts and assets. Understanding where you stand is the first step towards making positive changes.

Improve your financial literacy: Empowering yourself with knowledge and skills to manage your finances can mitigate money-related stress and anxiety.

Budget and plan: Creating a realistic budget and financial plan can provide a sense of control and reduce anxiety.

Prioritise expenses: Differentiate between essential and non-essential expenses. Start by covering necessities such as housing, utilities, groceries, and debt repayments.

Manage debt: Prioritise high-interest debt and explore options such as debt consolidation or refinancing at lower interest rates. Consider reaching out to creditors to negotiate repayment terms.
Increase income: Explore ways to boost your income, such as taking on part-time work, freelancing, or selling unused items.

Spend mindfully: Make deliberate choices about where your money goes. Avoid impulsive buys and focus on aligning your spending with your values and financial goals.

Apply self-care: Practise stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, exercise, or talking to a therapist to help you stay resilient and focused on your financial goals.

Get professional advice: Seeking help from a reputable financial adviser or debt counsellor can be a crucial step in addressing the financial aspects of the problem. A medical professional can advise you regarding mental and physical illness symptoms.

Tap into work wellness programmes: Many companies have staff wellness programmes. Sign up for these to track and improve your mental wellbeing.

Seek community and peer support: Connecting with support groups or peer networks can provide a safe space to share your financial concerns.

“Keep in mind that improving your financial situation takes time and effort, so be patient with yourself. Celebrate small victories along the way, and don’t hesitate to seek support from friends, family, and qualified finance or health specialists,” says Anthony.

“Addressing money challenges isn’t just about securing your financial future; it’s a vital step in safeguarding your mental wellbeing. A strong financial foundation provides peace of mind and reduces stress and anxiety, allowing you to focus on what really matters in life.”

DebtBusters Money Stress Tracker
Investec Focus Radio SA Economic impact on mental health

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