Stress is an unpleasant reality of modern life that takes a terrible toll on your physical and mental health. Consistently high levels of stress keeps you awake at night, saps you of energy, and cause you all sorts of discomfort. And that’s not getting into the illnesses you may get in the future, or the unhealthy coping mechanisms you pick up because of it.
Regular exercise already helps you significantly manage stress. By exercising, your body produce endorphins and endocannabinoids, which can help you feel good. It also lowers the amount of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Staying fit will help you resist some of the issues that crop
But while it helps immensely, exercise alone cannot lift away the sources of long-term stress. Stress can even become the kryptonite to your strength-building goals, as shown by several studies. The issue lies in the hormone called cortisol. This chemical is responsible for turning proteins into something the body can use for energy. As you get stressed, cortisol in your bloodstream starts breaking down the protein in your muscles.
You might be tempted think cortisol itself is bad, but it isn’t the case. The hormone is essential to many bodily functions, such as managing our blood sugar levels and our sleep cycles. It reduces inflammation and regulates blood pressing. More importantly, however, it is also an important part of the fight or flight response. In another time, this would’ve served us well. It prepares our body either to fight, run away, or stay still when a predator approaches.
Most people today don’t have to deal with hungry predators anymore. However, the body retains this instinct and applies it to the rigors of modern life. The only difference is that it now takes much longer to go away. And because cortisol also regulates sleep, the constant stress will disrupt your sleep cycle as well. The body was never meant to deal with that much adrenaline and cortisol in it for long.
Stress being a prolonged fight-or-flight response is why exercise helps. In that state, your body is primed to run and fight. Exercise stimulates these responses and allows the body to process these hormones naturally. But if the stress keeps coming back daily, it’ll become too difficult to address by just exercising alone.
At the Root of the Problem
Chronic stress comes from a variety of sources. They may come from job dissatisfaction or burnout, relationship problems, or past traumas that remain unresolved. The common problems of everyday life may also become a stressor if they come in too fast. The common thread for chronic stress is that they are consistent. You almost never have enough time to recover from it before it hits you again.
Of the common sources of chronic stress, money issues are on a class of their own. Not only do they cause a lot of distress, they also stand in the way of fixing the others. Everything you can do to stop sources of stressâ€”from home repairs to gap years to counselingâ€”costs money. Often, you can’t move forward until you can afford to do so.
Left unchecked, your money problems can make things worse. You might not be getting enough sleep worrying about money. You and your partner may argue constantly about it, straining your relationship. The feelings of helplessness will not be good for your ability to think, either. Excess financial stress can lead to a down spiral. A stressed person makes impulsive, costly decisions and starts unhealthy coping mechanisms. In turn, these cause more financial stress. The longer the cycle continues, the harder it is to break out.
Understanding the Money Issue
When you’re stressing out due to money, it’s important to address it sooner rather than later. Admitting that you might have a problemâ€”both to yourself and to the people you loveâ€”can put you on the track to solving it. Be prepared to do a lot of self-reflection and don’t be afraid to seek help. It isn’t easy, but it must be done.
Analyze your situation. The stress you get from money mostly come from these three issues:
- A lot of debt
- Poor cash flow
- A combination of the above
Every other issue is often a variation of the above. The next thing you need to do is run the numbers. How much do you owe? How much are you making? How much of your money is going to essential or unessential expenses. Once you’ve settled the numbers, it’s time to look exactly at what you’re spending on. Are you paying for things that you’re not actually using? Are you living beyond your immediate means? Could you be addicted to shopping or gambling?
A complete picture of your finances will help you spot the root causes of your money issues. Some things are not immediately actionable (not your fault), while others are. Seek out the issues you can solve and adjust your budget from there.
Set Achievable Goals
Just like with starting a fitness routine, resolving financial issues shouldn’t be a vague statement. Without specific, actionable details, your goals will fizzle out like the average person’s New Years’ resolution. Break down the overarching goal into small, workable steps. This way, you’ll have a doable plan that you can see through to the end.
Use the SMART acronym to guide you through goal setting:
- Specific: What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish? Split the main goal into much smaller ones. Things like “get out of debt” and “earn more money” are vague and general. Start with something like “pay extra to clear off one debt” or “earn more after the end of the pay period.”
- Measurable: Make sure you can measure your goals. The fortunate thing about money problems is that they are easy to quantify. Set a specific, reachable number goal. For instance, you must free an extra $50 at the end of the pay period or pay an extra $20 to your debts.
- Achievable: Be realistic with what you can do at first. Keep them small and doable within your current capacity. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you’re clearing debts, pay extra to only one of them at a time. Cut out extraneous expenses one by one. You don’t start a new workout routine by pulling trucks, after all.
- Relevant: Make each step of the goal contribute to the immediate big picture. For financial issues, this is easy enough. You cut back on unnecessary expenses to set aside money for savings, debts, and emergencies. Cutting out one debt removes one problem and lets you work on others. Cut back on an expense and you get more money for more important things.
- Time-Bound: Set a deadline for your goals so you can measure your progress better. For debts, this is usually simple enough. Run the data by a spreadsheet or calculator to find out how long it’ll take to pay it off. From there, make your deadline. You can also use time to motivate you to make deeper cuts. If you want to pay off your debt faster, for instance, you can increase your extra payments.
Often, these goals are incremental. You can set tiny doable goals first to motivate you, then work your way up. What constitutes “tiny” will depend on your situation. Sometimes, you’ll accomplish more by dividing a big goal into minuscule starter steps that are impossible to fail. At other times, you may need to make deeper cuts sooner. If your debts are high-interest, for example, it might be better to pay them off sooner even if they cost a lot. This is a bit extreme but will likely solve more problems down the line.
Refine Your Strategies
Solving your financial problems is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Sure, there’s a lot of general advice that you see floating around, but they’re not useful until you tailor them to suit your needs. At times, advice that seems logically better isn’t something you can commit to. And commitment is the key to solving the issue without stressing about it.
For instance, it’s common advice to pay off extra to only one of your debts one at a time. This way, the payments that go to the first one go to paying the next until all the debts are gone. The most “effective” variation is called the debt avalanche. Here you pay extra on the debt with the highest interest rate first (usually credit cards or personal loans), then work your way down. It can save you the most money quickly, but it has a drawback. The first debt you clear may take longer than anticipated to clear. If you’re motivated by immediate wins, your impatience may get the better of you.
Meanwhile, the alternative debt snowball method may be suited for you. It involves paying off the smallest debts first. You are guaranteed an early win even if it takes longer overall. And while it saves you less money, the fact that you have a greater chance of succeeding makes it worthwhile. Choose the strategy you can commit to till the end.
Understand the risks you take when building your financial future. While you still have debt, for instance, you’re better off paying it off and saving money for emergencies.
Like strength training, long-term stress management not an overnight thing. Financial relief is like committing to a fitness goal. It demands a lot of self-discipline, which often needs to be developed over time. Like strength training, you need to start small to make them achievable on your terms. It could take most of 2024 (or even longer) to clear out your financial issues.
Fortunately, dividing your goal into smaller ones is easier on your patience. Choose a pace that’s right for you. If you’re not yet comfortable making the big sacrifices (and won’t be in trouble for it), choose gradual cuts and work your way up. Focus first on setting and reaching realistic goals. If you find that your benchmarks are too easy, all the better. That means you can begin accelerating your efforts.
And through all this, remember to maintain as healthy a lifestyle as you can. Keep lifting and training to keep yourself physically and mentally fit through the process. Take comfort in the fact that you’re taking control of the stressors in life.