Ask a Therapist: How Do I Tackle My Debt and My Anxiety?

How to Manage Your Financial Health and Your Mental Health

A reader asks how to manage debt and anxiety.

Verywell / CSong

In the “Ask a Therapist” series, I’ll be answering your questions about all things mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about a life situation, or simply looking for a therapist's insight, submit a question. Look out for my answers to your questions every Friday in the Healthy Mind newsletter.

A Reader Asks

I feel like I’m so deep in debt I’ll never dig myself out. So rather than work on paying off my bills, I keep buying more stuff. Online shopping makes me happy. But when the bills come in, I feel overwhelmed and anxious. How do I motivate myself to start paying my bills?

Amy Answers

Avoiding your bills helps you push your anxiety back. That works for a minute, but it also creates more anxiety in the long-term. Buying things helps you feel better temporarily but that’s also creating bigger problems long-term. Facing a little discomfort will help you break this unhealthy cycle of immediate gratification.

You’re Addressing Your Feelings, Not the Problem

You’re using emotion-focused coping skills right now. That means you’re doing things to help you feel better in the moment. Emotion-focused coping skills can be helpful in situations where you can’t solve the problem—like when a loved one is sick.

But debt is a problem that needs to be solved. Feeling anxious over a pile of bills is actually healthy. Rather than give yourself a quick-fix to feel better (in your case, shopping), tackling those bills head-on will give you long-term relief.

Reviewing your financial situation will likely cause a spike in your anxiety at first. But as you begin solving the problem (rather than avoiding it), your anxiety will start to decline. Addressing your debt will help you feel more in control of your life. And that’s key to long-term anxiety management.

There’s a clear link between mental health and financial health. They go hand-in-hand. Tackling both issues at the same time can help you feel better while also helping get a handle on your money.

Alternative Coping Strategies

Buying stuff helps you feel happy and gives you some quick anxiety relief. It’s backfiring though, as it causes more bills to stack up. It’s important to look for alternative coping strategies to manage uncomfortable feelings.

When you’re tempted to shop online take a minute to notice how you’re feeling. Are you bored? Lonely? Anxious? Just naming your emotions can help you gain a little clarity.

Then, try some alternative coping strategies to manage your discomfort. Going for a walk, calling a friend, listening to music, cleaning the house, doing yoga, reading a book, or engaging in a favorite hobby are just a few examples of coping skills that might help you manage your emotions without introducing new problems into your life. You will likely need to experiment with different coping skills to determine what strategies work best for you.

Address Your Financial Situation One Step at a Time

You can’t begin to solve the problem until you face your situation head-on. You can begin to do that one small step at a time. 

  • Get organized about your debt. Write down how much money you owe and who you owe it to. This will be anxiety-provoking but it’s an important to acknowledge the problem so you can begin to develop a solution.
  • Calculate your income. Add up how much income you have coming in every month. It’s essential to know how much money you have to work with every month.
  • Establish a budget. Determine how much you need to spend on various bills and expenses each month. And determine if there are expenses you can get rid of (such as unused subscription services) and whether you need to find ways to increase your income. There are plenty of free budgeting apps that can help you track your spending every month. 
  • Write a list of reasons why you don’t want to shop online. Keep this list posted near your computer. When you’re tempted to shop for things you don’t need, read over this list. Seeing a list of reasons online shopping isn’t healthy for you right now might help you avoid temptation.
  • Get support. Getting financial advice, mental health treatment, and peer support may help you stay on track. Read books, find an online support group for people who working their way out of debt, or look for a financial advisor who can assist you. 

Get Professional Treatment If You Need It

You might find that you’re able to do this without talking to a therapist. But there’s also a chance that tackling this head-on might cause you more discomfort than you feel like you can handle.

Online shopping and debt may in itself be the problem. Or, it may be a symptom of a deeper-rooted issue. Sometimes people have a shopping addiction. At other times, people buy things because they have a self-worth issue.

Talking to a licensed mental health professional will cost you money. But it might be a really good long-term investment. It could help you save a lot more money in the long-run. 

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