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Take these steps to shake off anxiety and take control of your financial life

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Stress and anxiety can wreak havoc on your financial life.

A pile of bills, a lost job or pay cut, no child care or in-person schooling, and a pandemic that feels never-ending can impact anyone's psyche.

In fact, more than 4 in 5 Americans, or 84%, are feeling stress on their personal finances due the crisis, an October survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education found.

Here's a look at six steps you can take to shake off those emotions, so that you don't freeze up or make bad money decisions.

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1. Recognize you are anxious or stressed

Pay attention to your body and your emotions. Are you breathing faster? Are you more rushed?

Once you recognize you are anxious or stressed, it may help to take a moment and a few breaths before you make a decision, said licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. George James, chief innovation officer and senior staff therapist at the non-profit Council for Relationships.

"When we are anxious, it can impact what we do," he said. "It overwhelms our system and we make decisions or moves that maybe aren't in our best interest."

Reach out for help to the community you are involved with, such as a financial advisor, college friend or trusted family member, added James, a member of the CNBC Invest in You Financial Wellness Council.

2. Practice self-care

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Self-care and self-kindness are key in time like this, and you don't have to spend a lot of money on either, said financial therapist and coach Carrie Rattle, CEO and founder of New York-based Behavioral Cents, which provides financial coaching and therapy.

Self-care can mean good nutrition, sleep and exercise.

"Self-kindness is ensuring that, in this time of trauma, we are getting social interaction," even by phone or Zoom, she said. "Don't shut yourself off and live in your head."

3. Pay attention to the present

People tend to get caught up in looking at everything that needs to be fixed, and don't know where to start, Rattle explained.

Instead, think about one small thing you can do today to be smarter about your money. Attack it with an attitude of curiosity, rather than judgment, she said.

"When you pay attention to the present and you tackle one small behavior change, it is remarkably empowering," she said. "It gives you control back in a world where very few of us have control."

4. Get real about your finances

Look back at your finances over the past year, your income and your expenses.

This can help you become more knowledgeable about where you stand and will help you create a plan for the upcoming year, said certified financial planner Stacy Francis, president and CEO of Francis Financial, a New York-based wealth management practice.

"That is really important and powerful for not only, of course, staying on track financially, but often we think that we are either better off or worse off than we actually are," she explained.

Catherine Lavelle was able to bring her stress level down after coming up with a new financial plan.
Source: Catherine Lavelle

Catherine Lavelle, 47, didn't realize how bad her finances were — and how that stress was impacting her— until she wanted to buy a middle-income apartment in New York City a few years ago.

"I was so good at being bad about money," said Lavelle, admissions counselor for a New York state college.

After reviewing her situation, getting a handle on her credit card debt, hiring a financial planner and organizing her finances, she was able to bring her stress level down from what she called an 8 to a 1.

"I feel good about my finances for the first time in my life," Lavelle said.

5. Set priorities

What do you need most and what can wait? What costs can be reduced in some way?

When there are too many priorities swirling around in your mind, you can lose focus, Rattle said. If you write them down on a piece of paper and prioritize them, you have clarity on what comes next.

6. Create an emergency fund

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The pandemic is driving home the importance of having some cash stashed away in case of emergency.

"Anxiety comes from change," said Francis, a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council. "No one loves change.

"Unfortunately, with finances in 2020, a lot of that change was negative," she added. "The best defense you can have against a negative financial surprise is to have a good offense."

Ideally, try to save three to six months of living expenses to fall back on in the event something unexpected happens, Francis said.

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