Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a new series looking at the local economy, post COVID. This week, we’re discussing the mental health effects being felt by many amid record inflation.
The health of the economy affects everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. While many, perhaps even the majority of residents, are weathering the price hikes and stock market slumps relatively well, for others the pain is more acute.
Many Knox County residents, for instance, have been seeking assistance from local aid agencies to help meet their family’s most basic needs.
According to United Way of Knox County Director Mark Hill, local nonprofits have encountered many new, first-time faces in their offices as inflation hit 8.5% this summer.
“We have seen a significant increase, across our agencies in the need at food pantries and utility assistance,” said Hill. “At one point over the summer the number nearly tripled when things were at their worst.”
For men and women working low wage jobs or existing on fixed incomes, such as modest social security checks, even small economic downturns feel significant, prompting fear and anxiety.
Those with better financial means, too, have watched this year as they’ve lost thousands of dollars in investments meant for retirement — U.S. stock funds have continued to tumble downward in 2022, dropping 17.3% so far this year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Across the socioeconomic spectrum money is the leading cause of stress in the United States. According to the American Psychological Association, more than 70% of Americans identified money as their top worry — ahead of political issues, family, and job stress.
While some levels of stress are normal and can even serve as a motivator to remain cognizant of important issues, like finances, at a certain point unmanaged stress takes a mental and physical toll.
That unrelenting stress begins to manifest as headaches, stomachaches, sleepless nights, depression, and anxiety.
Particularly for low income earners, financial fears are often compounded by exposure to other forms of stress that middle and higher wage earners are not typically faced with.
Relying on a job that is demanding, pays a low hourly wage or salary, and offers little personal control, can be incredibly detrimental, both in terms of general stress as well as a sense of self worth.
Many lower income workers are also more likely to be exposed to other environmental stressors that only add to the strain they feel: living in neighborhoods with more violence as well as more noise from traffic or trains; less personal space; and fewer coping resources when they feel overwhelmed, such as savings accounts, health insurance, reliable transportation, or social support networks.
For middle income earners the financial strain can also feel very daunting but manifests somewhat differently, with those earning at least $35,000 per year worrying most often about mortgage rates, retirement accounts, college education funds for children, and emergency savings accounts.
For older Americans, the worries are most often tied to healthcare costs.
Whatever the reason, it seems almost everyone worries about money, and that stress diminishes mental and physical health, particularly when the market is turbulent and the future of the economy unclear.
Local experts say it’s normal to worry, but there are steps individuals can take to cope with the stress, beginning with taking ownership of things that are within a person’s control.
“Probably the simplest thing people can do is reprioritize,” Hill says. “Sometimes just doing a simple assessment for your family of what is absolutely necessary, and what we can do without, can help.”
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The licensed clinical social worker says he recognizes that many individuals are juggling work and family commitments, which can feel overwhelming at times. Those busy days, in turn, sometimes lead to paying more for quick convenient foods, or taking extra trips in the car than is necessary, resulting in more fuel expenses.
“Many people, understandably because of their demanding time challenges, do things that are easiest and most convenient in the moment, but may not be the best decision financially,” Hill said.
Finding the time to better organize and economize, he says, can be one of the first steps to reducing financial stress.
“People get overwhelmed when they feel out of control, and in a lot of ways they are, so the act of committing to a schedule and a budget can lessen a person’s anxiety and stress,” said Hill.
Dr. Errin Weisman, a local physician, life coach and podcaster agrees, noting that while many things are out of an individual’s control — the stock market, mortgage rates, or inflation — they need to harness what is within their power.
“When we hit another economic downturn, which isn’t unusual, it’s just a recalibration of the market, and who knows how low it will go? Even with our jobs, we can’t always control how many hours we work or whether or not we get a bonus.
“Managing your stress about money is asking yourself what you can control,” she said.
Like Hill, Weisman says it’s important for people to “get real with the numbers,” looking at exactly how much is coming in and how much is going out, as opposed to estimating.
But this task, she says, should be done without judgement.
“Just look at the facts, without judging what you ‘should’ve’ done,” Weisman said.
With numbers laid out in front of us, she says we can begin differentiating between our needs, wants, and all the extras.
Basic needs must obviously be met first, but Weisman says it’s important for people to allow themselves some of the “wants” as well, which is important for mental health.
“Do I need housekeepers? No, but it’s what I want to do, which frees up extra space in my life to do other things,” she said. “Once you’ve taken a look at the facts, you can see where there is an imbalance in your life.”
The doctor and life coach says much of the anxiety surrounding money, for many people, is less about a dire situation and more about the narrative they’re telling themselves — one that has been culturally engrained.
“What are the stories you’re telling yourself about money, even in the good times? Probably that you have to work harder to get ahead, that you have to save money or you’re irresponsible,” Weisman said. “We all have under-the-surface programming when it comes to money.”
Too, she argues, for many people, the current economy isn’t having much of an impact on them when looking at the real numbers, yet their anxieties are still incredibly heightened.
“It’s more the hustle and bustle around it that’s affecting them,” Weisman said, noting that it’s primarily gas and grocery prices hitting the wallets of the individual and that, to a large extent, people can control with minor adjustments.
“Really,” she says, “just take a step back and take a breath.”