Financial stress is taking a physical toll on young Canadians, survey finds

For the past several years, the strain of financial stress has left Safiya Mayers with depression, anxiety, fatigue, aching muscles, weight fluctuations and chest pains.

The 25-year-old facilities coordinator in Toronto said she experienced considerable stress paying for tuition and rent as a university student in her early 20s, while also taking on student debt. She’s no longer in school, but a significant portion of her income goes towards paying rent, leaving it difficult to repay loans or build sizable savings.

“I have to move in December and I’m mostly likely going to have to sacrifice either a social life or renting my own place. When I think about my future, I have a lot of anxiety because I don’t have a cushion. I don’t have that proper foundation to know that I’m OK if the ground were to shake,” she said.

“I feel like my early 20s have been taken from me because I was always worried about my finances, which in turn has affected my health.”

Mayers isn’t alone. According to FP Canada’s Financial Stress Index, published in June 2021, 39 per cent of Canadians polled under 35 say that financial stress has led to health issues and 11 per cent of respondents under 35 say that financial stress has led to mental health challenges or substance abuse. Comparatively, 28 per cent of those over 35 say financial stress has impacted their health and 5 per cent say it’s led to mental health challenges and substance abuse.

Canadians under 35 are also much more likely (44 per cent) to cite money as their No. 1 source of stress than those 35 and older (36 per cent).

“We know that stress, and especially chronic stress, is linked to many different health issues, such as chronic fatigue, gut health, a weakened immune system, headaches and tightness in the body. Eventually, it could lead to heart issues, said Chantel Chapman, a Richmond, B.C.-based financial trauma researcher and co-founder of The Trauma of Money, a financial literacy program.

The body and the brain don’t distinguish between financial stress and relationship, work or any other kind of stress, she added.

Younger Canadians are likely more impacted from financial stress because of housing affordability issues, particularly in more populated cities, according to Chapman. “Sometimes people have overspending stress because they’re trying to spend to survive. Their housing costs might be around 60 per cent of their income. The cost is very high compared to their earnings.” Chapman said.

Another reason younger Canadians may be experiencing higher financial stress is because of increased time spent on social media, she added. Higher levels of social media engagement can be directly correlated to feelings of inadequacy or stress, which can result in a state of comparison, Chapman explained, which can bring on feelings of scarcity or feelings of pain that people sometimes cope with by spending.

Chapman said the first step to reducing financial stress is to understand what’s going on in your nervous system — including your body, brain, breath and heart rate — and then using your breath or another somatic practice to calm down.

Once in a calmer state, you can start questioning the stories you tell yourself and ask what’s in your power as an individual. “Obviously this doesn’t take into consideration the systemic challenges that some folks have around money,” Chapman added. “There are economic barriers that impact people’s health and financial health that are out of their individual control to an extent.”

Shannon Lee Simmons, a financial planner and founder of the New School of Finance in Toronto, said her younger clients are able to alleviate some financial stress by mapping out what money is coming in and what money is going out. “Sometimes doing that is scarier sounding and feeling than it actually is,” she added.

Even if someone’s entire income is spent on rent, groceries, bills and repaying debt, a financial plan can be advantageous, Simmons added. “Your goal for this would be to just not go into debt and if you do go into a little bit of debt, stay calm and then work out a short-term plan to pay it back in a sustainable way.”

Simmons added that practising this skill set creates confidence, which is empowering when it comes to your finances because you can trust that you’re capable of managing money, even if you’re not saving any. And, when you know you can manage your money, there’s hope.

“I think hope is [important] when you’re feeling out of control or you’re feeling like you don’t have a future or you’re not sure what the future looks like,” Simmons said. “Restoring hope is how you stress less at night.”

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