Financial Stress: How Bad Can It Get?

Money, Love, Food: One Brain Currency

"All the things out there in the world that people pursue -- whether it's money, material goods, food or sex -- ultimately seem to go through a common dopamine pathway in the brain," said Berns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

"All the rewards are converted into this common signal, or currency, and then it's a question of exchange rate," Berns said. This means people react in the same way whether the reward in an experiment is money or food, or the absence of pain. The only difference is the threshold that makes them act.

Therefore, according to Berns, what differs from person to person in financial distress may just be the "exchange rate" of financial concerns for other desires.

But while individuals may differ in their financial fears and values, Berns said what really can drive financial worry is a universal herd mentality.

"There are the financial losses, but then there's also the fact that you see people freaking out," he said.

"Our brains evolved in social groups and because of that our brains are wired to accept other people's opinion as readily as if it came from our brain," he said. "It puts the brain in the panic mode, when you see other people panicking."

Richard Sherman, a psychologist in private practice in Tarzana, Calif., has seen herd mentality reactions in his patients thousands of miles away from Wall Street.

"Even if somebody is OK themselves, when they hear about it every day on the cable channels and in the headlines, some people who have this nature anyway, tend to obsess about it," Sherman said.

Sherman thinks that while stress over money may be complicated and deeply ingrained, actually treating the stress can be simple.

How to Help Financial Stress

"People are very resilient, and they can juggle a lot," he said. "But if they are having to deal with a health issue and a financial issue, or one gets very intense, it can throw them off balance."

To get back in balance, Sherman suggests a few simple steps.

"It's not that it's so profound, but sometimes we, all of us, forget to do the obvious," said Sherman.

First, breathe and look objectively at the situation: Are you really going to be homeless soon? Second, look for a simple and logical step, like cutting back dining expenses, to help. Third, exercise.

The most important advice, though, Sherman said, is to open up.

"People tend to get embarrassed that maybe they're feeling the financial crunch more than their neighbor, but they don't know that," he said. "When people feel that other people are going through similar situations, people feel better."

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