The reality of debt-related anxiety and how to face the fear of financial insecurity: 'My heart was racing'

As Hollywood actor Ian Somerhalder reveals how his debt stress landed him repeatedly in hospital, UAE experts weigh in on its debilitating causes, effects and outcomes

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Lost and The Vampire Diaries actor Ian Somerhalder, 42, shocked his fans recently when he took to social media to reveal that the debilitating effects of being in debt had led him to be hospitalised four times over the past two years, an experience he said destroyed his "body, mind and spirit".

Revealing that he had been left in an "eight-figure hole" caused by a "terrible business situation", the father-of-one called the stress of being in debt "a true nightmare day in and day out".

He credited his wife, Twilight actress Nikki Reed with helping him restructure his money issues and work on his mental health, writing on Instagram: "I've never disclosed this publicly, but this woman worked selflessly for two years to build me out of a terrible business situation I got myself into. I was left in an eight-figure hole. It was awful."

While much is made of the financial implications of accruing personal debt, such as your home or belongings being at risk if you do not keep up repayments, Somerhalder's experience shines the spotlight on the debilitating toll such circumstances can take on mental health.

‘Debt is one of the world’s most common causes of stress’

Finance coach Carol Glynn advises achieving 'financial clarity' as the first step to tackling the mental health issues debt can cause.
Finance coach Carol Glynn advises achieving 'financial clarity' as the first step to tackling the mental health issues debt can cause.

People get into debt for all different reasons, from job loss and medical emergencies, to death and divorce. While the reasons people accrue debt are well known, the effects of financial insecurity on both physical and mental health are less talked about.

"Plenty of research has shown financial stress to be one of, if not the most common cause of stress for both men and women, globally," says finance coach and chartered accountant Carol Glynn. "The mental health effects my clients talk about include anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, relationship difficulties, and many have unhealthy coping methods.

"They feel shame and so often feel they cannot talk to family or friends about what they are facing. They often feel embarrassed, a failure and fear being judged by the people they care about.”

Anxiety, depression and hopelessness: the dangerous effects of debt

Psychotherapist Carolyn Yaffe identifies feelings of hopelessness, depression and anxiety concerning your debt as indicators you need to seek professional help. Courtesy Medcare
Psychotherapist Carolyn Yaffe identifies feelings of hopelessness, depression and anxiety concerning your debt as indicators you need to seek professional help. Courtesy Medcare

“Being in debt can lead to anxiety and depression, and chronic stress that can become part of your life for years,” says Carolyn Yaffe, psychotherapist at Camali Clinic for mental health. “Pressure and constant calls from lenders and debt collectors may also trigger feelings of hopelessness leading to suicidal thoughts and actions.”

A feeling of loss of control can also lead to periods in which thoughts about debt are constant, affecting the ability to function on a daily basis.

"A person no longer feels in complete control of their life," says Johanna Richmond, a therapist at Cognitive Behaviour Therapy clinic in Dubai. "The fear of losing the ability of repaying the debt can become an obsessive thought, the sense of uncertainty pervades as time goes on, along with self-doubt and the loss of concentration. Anxiety will ensue, along with the potential for panic attacks."

‘I would wake up at 3am in a panic’

Embarrassment was a key component in why marketing manager Lisa Fellowes*, 41, who lives in Dubai, waited so long to seek help for the mental health effects her debt had brought about.

"I felt really ashamed," she recalls of having accumulated "around Dh120,000" ($32,675) in debt over the period of a few years. "I felt like no one would understand or that they would judge me and think I had frittered the money away on going out or handbags or holidays, when that couldn't have been further from the truth. Just day-to-day existing costs money with rent, bills, food, gas. Everything started to add up and get out of my control."

My heart would be racing and I would have trouble breathing

A marriage breakdown that caused a division of assets and loss of financial support contributed to her debt, but Lisa admits, “I wasn’t particularly educated about money to begin with. I went from having no financial worries, to living pay cheque to pay cheque, to living beyond my means.

"The effects on my mental health were quite shocking when I look back on it. The anxiety would wake me up at 3am. Just like – zing! – I would be wide awake with this absolutely horrible, overwhelming fear as I wondered what I was going to do.

"My heart would be racing and I’d have trouble breathing. But it wasn’t just at night time, the stress was with me all day, too. It became hard to focus at work or when meeting up with friends because I was constantly thinking out scenarios in my head like: ‘Maybe if I pay this card and not that one this month’, or, ‘What if I get ill or lose my job, what will happen to me?’”

Richmond explains: “The threat of negative consequences leads to fearfulness, focusing on the ‘What if ... I lose my job, can’t pay the debt, what happens to my family, my life and thoughts like that.' The fear of losing the ability of repaying the debt can become an obsessive thought leading to a further loss of self-confidence.”

‘Talking about your situation will relieve stress’

Experts are agreed that the first step towards tackling debt, and by extension the debilitating mental health issues that can stem from it, is to talk about it. The person you talk to doesn’t have to be a finance expert, but could be a trusted friend or therapist.

“Feeling hopeless, depressed and anxious is an indicator you need professional help so search for a qualified mental health professional,” advises Yaffe. “If you are unable to afford professional help you can check the coverage on your insurance or look for a mental health professional who will work on a sliding scale fee or offer to do pro bono. They are out there.

"Talking about your difficulties will help to relieve stress," she says. "Discussing the situation with a trusted friend or loved one that you are in a difficult financial situation and struggling with your mental health as a result, will help to relieve pressure. Even if they cannot assist you financially or fix the situation, the objective of opening up is an important way to release the burden you feel and talk through your feelings. This is much more productive than keeping it to yourself, which will only increase your anxiety."

Coping techniques: from spreadsheets to deep breathing

Johanna Richmond, psychologist at CBT Dubai, suggests deep breathing, exercising and learning calming techniques as a way of tackling the mental health effects of debt.

Glynn advises creating a comprehensive spreadsheet of your finances in order to achieve “financial clarity” and face up to the full extent of your debt.

“I very much focus on the person’s personal values so we can come up with a financial plan, goals, budget and system that works for the individual,” she says. “The idea is to ensure they are putting their money behind their values and so their spending, savings and general money habits are aligned with their personal values, ambitions and goals in life.

“Clients come away feeling less stressed, more empowered and in control of their situation.”

Exercise, a focus on deep breathing and learning calming techniques are all other ways in which debt-related anxiety can be addressed.

Richmond suggests seeking out ways in which you can access the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls bodily functions when a person is at rest, including helping the body to relax.

“You can activate the parasympathetic nervous system by deep breathing, exercising and staying calm to enable a solution,” she says. “This is individual-specific. Also watch out for negative biases such as adopting an 'all or nothing' approach or catastrophising the situation.”

*Name is changed on request