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What is Financial Stress?

August 22, 2022

A couple arguing over money

Financial stress could be impacting your life more than you think, so much so it could be giving you the symptoms of PTSD.

Take a second and think about a time you’ve been stressed because of money. From small things, like that time you lost your wallet, to larger ones, like when a medical emergency destroyed your credit.

For most of us, it’s not hard to come up with an example or 11. But because financial stress affects everyone on a spectrum, even your smallest stressors can grow until they start having a serious impact on your life. So much so that you can start showing the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Science Team at Happy Money has identified a disorder affecting 23% of all Americans that they’re calling Acute Financial Stress (AFS) — when stressful financial situations cause negative impacts on your thoughts, feelings and behaviors that match the diagnostic criteria psychologist use to identify people with PTSD.

How Financial Stress Impacts Your Life

According to the Science Team at Happy Money, "Financial stress seems to boil the ocean slowly. One missed payment becomes two, becomes another credit card to try and right the ship. And then you realize it’s been weeks since you have thought about anything except your bills.”

While financial stress can disturb almost every corner of your life, when measuring its effects, you need to focus on how it impacts three main areas — your thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

  • Thoughts — Financial stress can cause persistent negative thoughts, such as beating yourself up over past mistakes.
  • Feelings — Financial stress can cause feelings of fear, worry or regret related to your finances.
  • Behaviors — Financial stress can cause changes in your behaviors, like avoiding social occasions.

Managing Financial Stress

“Humans have been dealing with stress forever,” says the Science Team at Happy Money. “And we have found some amazingly effective ways of managing stress. Exercise, relaxation, mindfulness — all of these can reduce existing financial stress and even more usefully, can keep it from developing.”

Identifying where financial stress is impacting your life is just the start. Next, you’ll need to know what you can do about it. (Hint: The answer is not just “make more money.”)

The Science Team at Happy Money combined their years of experience with proven research and field expertise to design the Happy Money Peace program to help you diminish the effects of financial stress.

Happy Money Peace is a six-part, stress-reduction email series based on the clinically proven Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

CBT is a form of mindfulness (the practice of actively paying attention to the present, i.e. meditation) that enables your brain to override your physical responses to stress. It’s normally used as a nonintrusive, pill-less way to treat depression, but our Science Team saw CBT’s benefits for people dealing with financial stress too.

The big focus here is helping you reduce your financial stress because, no matter how small, if you don’t face your financial stress head-on it can grow into Acute Financial Stress.

What is Acute Financial Stress?

Acute Financial Stress (AFS) is defined as a pattern of intrusive thoughts, disordered feelings and avoidant behaviors related to your finances.

Our Science Team shares, “AFS is a stress-related syndrome that occurs after our brains and bodies have experienced such severe and/or prolonged stress that we lose the ability to modulate even normal stress. Financial stress seems to be so constant for people that basic physiological moderation systems get burned out and their systems are, in a sense, stuck in overdrive.”

AFS presents itself in the same way as PTSD. And while AFS is in no way diminishing the events suffered by those in combat or other traumas, the impact it can have on people’s lives is the same. The symptoms of AFS match up with the criteria required for a PTSD diagnosis.

Those symptoms include:

  • Sleeping difficulty
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Reliving past stressful events
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Denial
  • Emotional numbing
  • Avoiding stress reminders

And like PTSD, AFS is impossible to treat if you don’t know you have it.


As you’ve seen, financial stress presents itself at different levels in each of our lives. Some of us barely notice it while others have full-blown AFS. And if it goes unaddressed, undiagnosed and untreated, it can really damage your life. That’s why we designed Peace – a six-part, stress-reducing email series that's focused on financial mindfulness exercises.

Financial stress may affect us at different points throughout our lives, but that doesn’t mean we have to let it control us.