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How to cope with financial stress and anxiety during troubling times

Protesters donned masks during a rally to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
China News Service

There's no doubt Americans are feeling stressed and anxious these days.

Money concerns hit many hard as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the economy. There are also fears about the virus itself, as well as the pain it's inflicted on people's everyday lives.

All of that has added up to mental health issues. In a poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in late March, 45% of adults said their mental health had been negatively impacted because of worry and stress over the virus.

By May, a policy brief by the United Nations stated that the Covid-19 crisis "has the seeds of a major mental health crisis."

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Then, on May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in police custody after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. Protests and unrest followed and many Black CEOs and financial leaders spoke out about the racial wealth gap.

Shortly thereafter, depression and anxiety jumped among Black Americans. According to the Household Pulse Survey from National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and the Census Bureau, 40.5% of non-Hispanic Black Americans reported symptoms of anxiety and depression the week of May 28 to June 2, up from 35.6% the week prior. In comparison, non-Hispanic White Americans saw a small increase to 33.1%, from 32.3%. Hispanics or Latinos saw a small decrease.

Dr. George James, LMFT
George James

Licensed marriage and family therapist George James, chief innovation officer and senior staff therapist at Council for Relationships and a member of the CNBC Invest in You Financial Wellness Council, spoke with CNBC about the connection between finances and mental health, the Covid-19 crisis and the impact of recent events on the Black community.

CNBC: How do money issues affect people's mental health?

Dr. George James: Money is just connected to so much for people's mental health in a few different ways. If people don't have it, they're worried about it. Usually there's some anxiety if they feel like they're losing it. And even if they have it, can they maintain that?

There's also just the connection of quality of life and how people might see themselves. Am I successful? Did I do well? Am I helping my family? All those things that build up internal character and self-esteem can sometimes be connected to how someone sees himself financially.

Money can impact a lot of how we see ourselves, how we see our family, how we treat our family members, how we treat other people. It can get us to a place where we're low, sad and depressed. It can get us to a place where we're excited.

Sometimes when we are overwhelmed, we shut down. Sometimes when we're overwhelmed, we're not as productive.
George James

CNBC:  How is the financial fallout from coronavirus pandemic affecting people's mental health?

GJ: The coronavirus pandemic has just brought out so much. If you didn't really believe in anxiety or you just thought that's something that other people experience, Covid-19 has allowed you to realize that you also have anxiety. And if you recognize that you had anxiety before, it's kind of maybe shot through the roof.

There is fear and concern about: Will I get sick? Will it be worse? Will that happen to a family member? And then how does that impact my job? Will I be able to work? Will that be safe?

Then, financially, will we earn the same amount of income or revenue? What happens if there has to be furloughs or even job changes or even loss of a job?

These are all concerns, worries and anxieties that a lot of people end up feeling and struggling with. Sometimes when we are overwhelmed, we shut down. Sometimes when we're overwhelmed, we're not as productive. We don't make the best choices or decisions.

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CNBC: What are some coping mechanisms for those who might find themselves under stress, especially financial stress?

GJ: One, for a lot of folks who might be so overwhelmed and stressed, it's to be able to acknowledge it.

Sometimes we can just be on autopilot and don't even realize that our heart rate is increasing, we're more frantic, we're irritable, we're treating those around us in very harsh ways. And being able to just own, "Oh, there's something else that's gone all off me."

Two, being able to find those things that help you to cope. For somebody, it's physical activity. It could be a walk or run, or something else. For others, it's morning tea and watching something that's not going to make them feel bad. Others, it's family time.

I really encourage people to figure out what are your top five things that can help you to feel better when you're overwhelmed. Know those top five. Then activate, go after and do it. Once you do that, you can now be in a place where you can maybe be more productive or you can be your best self.

Self care is crucial because anxiety, worry, being overwhelmed, it's just tough. And the more intense it is, the more we get paralyzed.
George James

CNBC: Is the stress for minorities different during this time?  

GJ: Unfortunately, our country has had a long history of injustice in multiple ways. Whether that be how we treat women, how we treat people of different sexual orientation, how we treat those who are older. We've also seen that for how this country also treats people of color and, in particular, how it treats African-American and Black families.

There's a long history of how people have been denied loans, even with the same credit score. People have had to live in certain neighborhoods because they couldn't get houses in other neighborhoods or there's less access to education.

All these things are part of systemic racism and they stack up on each other to then lead to negative outcomes. Neighborhoods that you might be forced to live in might not have a grocery store. So being able to eat in a healthy way becomes a challenge.

Or, you might not be able to get the job that you were qualified for just because someone doesn't want to look at your resume because your name sounds like you are connected to an ethnic group or that your name is something that they just have a bias against. What might seem like one thing, plus another thing, plus another thing adds to it.

So when I was talking about the anxiety that Covid-19 has brought to a lot of people, a lot of people of color have been feeling that anxiety throughout their whole life. Will I get a job? Will I be judged or will I be seen for my qualifications and skills? Will I be able to get the loan? So when you add all of those things, plus Covid, plus intense racial injustice, it just becomes significant and overwhelming.


CNBC: How does racism impact the mental health of Black Americans?

GJ: One of the things I've been talking about a lot is racial trauma. That is the psychological and emotional impact of racism and daily microaggressions.

Microaggressions are those things that people of color experience that continuously tell them that they're not seen as equal: being followed around in the store, not earning the same salary as your co-worker who's doing the same or less job.

When you add those up, they can increase levels of depression, anxiety, being overwhelmed, fear and insomnia.

CNBC: How can people of color cope with this added strain?

GJ: It's OK to take care of yourself and to take breaks. Self care is crucial because anxiety, worry, being overwhelmed, it's just tough. And the more intense it is, the more we get paralyzed. For a lot of people of color, it's just been so intense.

Sometimes it's hard to take care of yourself because you feel like you need to advance the cause. But it's OK. It's OK to take a break. It's OK to recharge. It's OK to take a breath and then come back and do what you need to do.

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CNBC: How does all of this affect our interpersonal relationships?

GJ: When we talk about Covid or we talk about racial injustice, these things come home and these are things that our partner feels, our children feel, our colleagues feel. Sometimes it's hard to remember that it's not just us going through this. There are other people that we are connected to.

Check in with your partner. Check in with your children. Have conversations with your children. Have conversations with your partner. Check in with your colleague. Ask 'how are you doing,' whether it be about Covid or about racial injustice, because making those gestures to the people you're connected to can make a huge difference in how they are feeling and how you are feeling.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.