How to cope with financial stress and anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic

Experts advise making time to video chat with friends and family.

Have questions about your finances related to the coronavirus outbreak? Email them to reporter Alicia Adamczyk at alicia.adamczyk@nbcuni.com.

A week ago, Nicole Brewer was looking forward to attending a conference at Princeton University and spending a day at the Yale School of Drama.

As a freelance theater director and educator, the 37-year-old mother of two primarily makes money off of speaking engagements and holding theater workshops. But now, all of her events have been cancelled through the end of the month as much of the country prioritizes social distancing amid the coronavirus outbreak.

While she understands why the events are being cancelled, she's also worried about paying her bills in the coming months: Not only has she lost much of her own income, but her partner has had his hours in a D.C.-area hotel slashed. She estimates they will lose around $3,000 this month.

"I have a graduate degree, I've worked at institutions as a professor, I've done everything that I need to do to quote unquote 'succeed in the meritocracy' in the U.S.," Brewer tells CNBC Make It. "And here I am as a 37-year-old black woman with not enough savings to cover my family's expenses."

Brewer and her family aren't alone. Millions of Americans are going to face financial strains in the coming weeks, whether from unexpected medical costs, losing income or seeing their retirement savings plunge

If you are struggling financially, here are eight steps to take now. And in the meantime, here are five ways to manage financial stress and anxiety.

1. Accept the current state of affairs

A lot of anxiety stems from not knowing what will happen with regard to the coronavirus, or how long things will be different, Megan McCoy, director of the personal financial planning masters program at Kansas State University, tells CNBC Make It. "When faced with the unknown, we often experience paralyzing anxiety," she says.

The first step to overcoming that anxiety is accepting that your life is going to be different for a while and focusing on tasks you can control. 

"I think recognizing that it is natural to feel this underlying anxiety is really helpful because then we can recognize our desire for a sense of control," says McCoy.

Even for well-off people, worrying about money is common in times of uncertainty, says Dr. Mary Gresham, an Atlanta-based psychologist who specializes in financial concerns. That's because it is more socially acceptable to voice concerns about finances than things like isolation or depression.

If you are becoming increasingly worried about money, take stock of the resources you do have.

"Put more attention on your strengths and abilities and imagine yourself coping and adapting," Gresham suggests. "If you have been through financial reversals in the past, and most of us have been through those at some point in our lives, identify what got you through them."

2. Know your emotional triggers

Pinpoint what your emotional triggers are and how you react to them. Maybe you're a stress shopper or perhaps you're considering selling some investments. Whatever it is, don't let your emotions take over.

"It's easy to get sucked into Amazon or Target while home in quarantine, but you don't need to spend," says McCoy, who is also the secretary of the Financial Therapy Association's (FTA) board of directors. This also applies to overbuying supplies. "You may reduce your financial means by overbuying."

It's okay to distance yourself from upsetting news, as long as you're staying informed. "Pick one channel you trust and don't inundate yourself with it," she says. "Limit your social media exposure." That said, keep up to date on what your banks, creditors, employer, local government, etc., are doing in response to the virus. 

3. Prioritize mental health care

Don't skip your therapy appointments, if you already see a professional, and seek out teletherapy options if you think they'd be beneficial. For Brewer, that means continuing to see her therapist to talk through things and being intentional about listening to herself and practicing self care.

"It doesn't have to be that I'm going to yoga, it's about how do I listen to myself and my body?" she says. For her, laying on the ground and focusing on her breathing helps calm her mind.

McCoy advises doing the things you normally would for their mental health benefits: work out, sleep right, limit alcohol and caffeine and setup FaceTime calls or Google Hangouts with your friends and family.

A ton of helping professionals I know are providing telemental health during this time so it could be something you do while in quarantine.
Megan McCoy
Financial Therapy Association

"Consider talking to a mental health or financial therapist professional," adds McCoy. "A ton of helping professionals I know are providing telemental health during this time, so it could be something you do while in quarantine."

Organizations including the National Alliance on Mental Illness are providing guidance and resources on their sites as well.


4. Don't take unnecessary risks

If you don't have a ton of savings, now is not the time to go on a stock-buying spree because of a thread you saw on Reddit. 

"Don't gamble with the stock market if you don't have the disposable income," says McCoy. "We don't know when things will recover."

You can mitigate anxiety by doing the right thing and staying safe.
Megan McCoy
Financial Therapy Association

Likewise, stay inside and wash your hands frequently. "You can mitigate anxiety by doing the right thing and staying safe," she says. "Keep your immune system healthy."

5. Lean on your community

Brewer says her freelance and artistic communities are getting her through the difficult time.

Last week, a team of artists and freelancers, including Brewer, began putting together a Google doc of resources for people struggling. They have since turned it into a website filled with resources for all freelance artists, including actors, designers, producers, technicians, stage managers, musicians, dancers, writers and more. They are also hosting webinars with lawyers and financial experts in the coming weeks.

Brewer says she's never experienced anything like the current state of affairs in her life. The freelancer community is attempting to put together resources that can be used should any similar situation arise in the future.

That, at least, is giving her hope in dark times. If you have family members or community to lean on, she says, now is the time to do so. 

If you can, donate money to your local food bank, offer assistance to your high-risk neighbors so they don't need to be outside and only stock up on the supplies you absolutely need. 

"Yes, we're a bit screwed right now," says Brewer. "But it also allows us to ask, how do we not end up in this situation again as a collective?"

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