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Debt Stress & Our Emotional Health

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Throughout history, someone somewhere has owed someone else money and this has caused them stress. After all, if you owe someone money, eventually they are going to want it back.

Dealing with those demands for repayment can be very stressful. It can even lead you to some very dark and lonely emotional places.

Debt has long been a problem for South Africans, but it seems that the COVID-19 pandemic has spread the to millions more people than before. Along with the increase in debt, there has been an increase in emotional problems linked to stress and anxiety.

Regardless of the cause, debt often wreaks emotional havoc on our psyche and our family life.


Among the negative effects of dealing with debt are low self-esteem and even impaired cognitive function. That means that you can’t learn, remember, pay attention or solve problems when you’re busy freaking out over something like your overdue municipal bill.

It is a fact that debt can hurt, really hurt. A study found that those with higher levels of debt and/or unemployment were more likely to purchase over-the-counter painkillers as well as antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills just to help them cope.

A research team discovered that simply thinking about financial insecurity was enough to increase pain levels. People reported feeling almost twice as much physical pain after recalling a financially unstable time in their life, compared to those who thought about a financially secure time.

It’s rare for someone to go through their entire life and never experience any money problems. Trouble arrives unexpectedly, jobs disappear suddenly, marriages fail, people get sick and bills just keep piling up. Nobody is immune, especially during (and probably long after) a global pandemic.


We know being in debt causes stress but could there be a link the other way around? Can stress lead to debt?

Well, it seems that debt and stress can be part of a vicious circle. After years of research, it has been found that worrying about debt triggers stress, which drives negative behavioural patterns -negative behaviour that compels some consumers to spend without restraint.

You may have heard of terms like “retail therapy”. People often spend to feel powerful and free, even when they do not have the means to do so. And this can drive a person into debt just as fast as an unplanned financial emergency caused by a car accident, for example.


Regardless of how anyone gets into debt, it will always trigger unsettling emotional responses that are hard to deal with. So, what can help you to cope with these negative feelings and concerns?

Debt can lead to stress and many negative emotions and those feelings and the stress can lead you to make bad choices that create even more debt. Being aware of this is important. It can help you better cope with the way you feel and act about your financial situation.



If you are feeling low about your money problems, you may feel very isolated. You need to confide in someone.

You may not feel free to talk to family and friends because you don’t want to stress them with your challenges. Talking to someone neutral like a Debt Counsellor, who helps people deal with their debt stress all day, can really help.

A Debt Counsellor will sit down together with you (or virtually over Zoom or on the phone if that’s safer) and work out a personalised game plan to help you deal with your debt and become as financially successful as possible in the future.



Chances are, there are still some expenses you can reduce or cut out that can immediately relieve some pressure.

Review your spending and eliminate expenses that aren’t absolutely essential. Prioritise according to necessity – basic needs such as food, housing, utilities and children’s expenses come first, and everything else is included after that. Write it down.



Rather than hiding from your credit providers and bill collectors, choose to be calm and proactive.

Why not make the first move and contact your creditors to explain your new financial situation? Let them know the details of what led to the problem (even if it was your “fault”) and how you plan to fix it.

They are also people with families and economic challenges of their own. The best thing you can do is talk to your credit providers and create a plan of action.



Focus on the good things in your life rather than all the challenges you face.

Ask yourself; are you ‘relatively’ healthy? Do you have the love and support of friends and family? It might be difficult initially, but being optimistic is key to making positive changes.



Doing nothing will not help your situation. Get up and get out (but resist the urge to shop if your spending is out of hand).

If you are already buried under debt, but keep receiving offers for credit cards or store accounts, destroy them and throw them away. Lockdown can make you feel caged at home and feed on the urge to roll up in a ball and hide.

Why not start doing a little exercise? Why not take the dog for a walk? Why not get the ball rolling and make a call to a Debt Counsellor and ask about how they recommend you deal with your situation?


Being in debt is stressful but it really doesn’t have to take all the joy out of your life. There are many ways to deal successfully with debt. As we have seen, there are things you can do to start to deal with your debt and negative emotions.

Remain positive by focussing on the good things in your life and remember there are many options to help you navigate your way out of debt. Sometimes all you have to do is ask for help. Speak to a friend or family member or, even better, a professional Debt Counsellor today and begin to take steps to reduce your debt stress.