Is your bank app stressing you out? You may be dealing with financial anxiety

It’s common for people to worry about money, but if that boils over into full-blown anxiety it can become a chronic problem. Danielle Olavario spoke to the experts to find out more.


The chime of my bank app made me a master in the art of avoidance. Any time that familiar bell went off, I would flip my phone face-down and engage in a flurry of activities – working, cooking, peeling, washing, scrubbing – anything to divert my attention from the notification. When I eventually summoned the courage to confront it, I would find myself seized by a nervousness familiar to 18-year-olds opening the brown envelope of their Leaving Cert results. My mouth would go dry, my hands would tremble, and I swear anyone within a five-mile radius could hear my heartbeat echo.

It would always be some sort of benign, routine alert. I was two years into my first ‘stable’ job, far removed from the student lifestyle. My financial obligations were now consistently taken care of. My rent payment went through. My electricity bill was paid off. My Netflix subscription lived on for another month. Notice of the payment would be followed by my account balance, confirming that I had ample funds in my account for discretionary spending. I had nothing to worry about. But, every time I heard that ping, the same feeling would wash over me, as if I had done something wrong and was now getting into trouble for it.

Within five minutes of talking to Jane Monica-Jones, a financial therapist based in Australia, she was opening my mind to the possible roots of my behaviour around money.

I had a childhood shadowed by economic adversity, where discussions around covering rent or bills dominated our dinner table conversations. The situation got worse during my college years, as my father lost his job while we juggled rent payments for two residences – our family home and my accommodation in Dublin. Monthly, the question of meeting these financial obligations loomed. Like the unopened bank notification on my phone, I would attempt to shelve these concerns for the remainder of the month, diverting my attention elsewhere.

I thought the habit would disappear as my first job not only covered my expenses but also alleviated the financial strain on my family in ways my 18-year-old self could only dream of. Paradoxically, however, the newfound financial stability only brought to the forefront my deeply ingrained anxiety surrounding money – anxiety over a now seemingly non-existent threat.

What is financial anxiety?

Financial anxiety is a term used to describe a feeling of worry fear, or unease about one’s finances, although there is no official medical definition. However, Dr Thomas Richardson, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Southampton, asserts that there is certainly a strong link between financial difficulties and mental health problems.

“We’ve known for a long time that growing up in poverty, growing up in deprived areas, increases the risk of a range of different mental health problems,” he said. “You’re more than three times as likely to have a mental health problem if you’re in debt.”

But let’s be clear: anyone can have anxious thoughts around their finances regardless of how much money they have in their bank account. Comparison can play a part. Even if someone earns an above-average income, they can still end up worrying about money as a result of comparing themselves to friends, family or people on social media.

“What’s more important than actually how much debt you’re in, how much you're struggling to pay the bills, is how worried you are about it, how stressed you are about it, how hopeless you are about ever paying it off,” said Thomas.

While stress is a natural part of being human and fluctuates over time, for Jane, the concern arises when it becomes chronic. “Say, signing a mortgage or taking out a loan for a mortgage,” she said. “During the signing, you’ll get a level of stress. But if you feel chronically overwhelmed by that experience, then we would say that there’s a problem.”

The symptoms of financial anxiety

Psychologically, this chronic worry manifests itself in different ways, from rumination to dwelling on ruination. “You’re not just thinking about now,” said Thomas. “You’re worrying and catastrophising about what’s going to happen with my money in advance – in a year, in 10 years. One little thing can happen – like getting a letter from a creditor – and you end up catastrophising that ‘I'm going to go bankrupt.’”

It turns out, my habit of avoiding bank notifications was also another manifestation. “Some people will say they literally don’t open bills, they don’t look at their bank balance. They bury their head in the sand because it just feels too overwhelming,” Thomas added. “Obviously, this creates a vicious cycle, and people can end up making the situation worse.”

Financial anxiety can also have physical symptoms. In milder instances, financial anxiety might show up as irritability, difficulty sleeping, and a general feeling of unwellness, perhaps even nausea. On a deeper level, it can lead to more intense experiences. Chronic stress can result in continuous physiological churn, including high blood pressure, an elevated heart rate, and shallow breathing. This prolonged state of worry can lead to difficulties in clear thinking, heart palpitations, heightened irritability, insomnia, increased anger and confusion.

How do you deal with financial anxiety?

Jane points out that individuals experiencing financial anxiety often resort to overthinking or overworking in an attempt to extricate themselves from the situation. “We think that if I can just keep working and keep stressing and trying to figure it all out, that’s the way that it’s going to get me out,” she said. But that might have the opposite effect.

Pausing and prioritising relaxation, engaging in self-care practices that ensure our wellbeing, making sure to get adequate sleep and finding ways to lower our heart rates are key. “When the nervous system is stressed, it needs to have a level of relaxation, rejuvenation, in order to be able to problem-solve, to get creative,” said Jane.

Thomas emphasised that this is not a problem that can be solved overnight. Instead, taking it one step at a time and focusing on the present is key. “That’s where mindfulness for me comes in quite a lot,” he said.

Jane cautioned against falling into the trap of thinking that material possessions or extravagant experiences like shoes or holidays will fill a void or alleviate our anxiety, when in fact it may make the situation worse. There are a lot of low or no-cost ways that can strengthen our resilience, she said, and one of those is to be with nature. “If we can be in a park, if we can be near a cat, near a dog, see a bird, be near a flower … that is going to give us a lot more nourishment than these consumer items that we may want to purchase.”

She also highlighted that being with other people is an essential part of this process. In a survey conducted nationwide by dara & co, 62% of those who are uncomfortable with their financial situation reported heightened feelings of isolation. “Certainly in the West, we have set up lives of isolation and autonomy, whereas a lot of other cultures are about bigger networks, bigger family units, a lot of community,” said Jane. “I don’t think we thrive in isolation and autonomy. We need a lot of help. Life is tough.”

Shame also plays a huge part in this, Thomas added. “It’s important to remind yourself that you’re not alone in this,” he said. “You shouldn’t feel ashamed. We’re in recession, so you’re not the only person that’s struggling.”

Learn to tackle everyday anxiety with An Introduction to Meditation, a remote live event hosted by meditation teacher Niamh Hurney on 16 May.

Danielle Olavario
Danielle Olavario is a full-time social media expert, part-time writer, and life-long Sex and the City super fan. A digital native born in the Philippines, she has had a love-hate relationship with the internet since the dial-up days.

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