Financial Stress: How Bad Can It Get?

After the disastrous few weeks in the economy -- banks failing, corporate bailouts and wild rides on the stock market -- stress experts expect some people will be pulling out their hair, but others will just shrug their shoulders.

The difference, psychologists say, does not always depend on the amount in someone's bank account. In fact, financial distress can go from a minor headache to a full-blown phobia depending on the person.

"You can experience the same [financial] loss as another person but it's how you perceive that loss, how you've been able to cope with loss in your past, and the accompanying anxiety, that will dictate how much stress you experience," said Kathleen Gurney, CEO of Financial Psychology Corporation.

Gurney has researched people's feelings about money for two decades. In that time she's found what she calls "money personalities": the High Roller, the Hunter, the Achiever, the Perfectionist and others.

When financial loss and troubles hit, Gurney said, "…the Hunters, Achievers and Perfectionists, for example, experience distress, which is more dangerous as it lasts longer, causing more physical side effects and ailments.'

"The High Rollers actually enjoy the thrill of highs and lows in the market -- so the ride is as important as reaching the destination or achieving the goal," said Gurney, author of "Your Money Personality: What It Is and How You Can Profit From It."

Yet while the High Rollers at investment firms usually take the ups and downs better than the person who is a perfectionist with money, a complete obliteration of jobs and goals can change the playing field. A lost job might be different than a loss in a day.

Is Financial Stress Different From Any Other?

"With things like a relationship or a chronic medical condition there's going to be a course of things," said Katherine L. Muller, director of the cognitive behavior therapy program at the Montefiore Medical Center, in Bronx, N.Y.

"Financial stress seems to be often time unexpected and that's why we think people tend be more reactive," Muller said. "It's harder to predict where it's going, and you don't have as many signals to predict when it's coming."

Although Muller has noticed people deal better with stress that has a foreseen conclusion -- such as final exams, weddings or even break-ups -- rather than the uncertain stress of unemployment, she says the reaction to that stress trigger can be the same responses.

"The stuff that happens in your body is the same," Muller said. In the short term, stress may increase stress hormone levels, heart rate or cause temporary insomnia. In the long term, stress can cause inflammation, chronic insomnia, muscle injury and weaken the immune system.

Muller said financial stress can even take the place of other, more common phobias and psychological problems.

"We've seen folks who are so terrified by their financial situation that they're terrified of dealing with it. People don't want to look at their bills, they won't open their mail, they won't pay their mortgage -- all in attempts to numb themselves or make it go away," she said.

"We see it all the time in other phobias: If you're afraid of elevators you avoid them. If you're afraid of dogs you avoid them," Muller said.

According to Dr. Gregory S. Berns, who studies neuroeconomics, financial concerns have far more in common with any other fear or desire than most people would guess.

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