Alexandra is usually very well put-together, never a hair out of place and always perfectly dressed for the occasion. The morning she met Katie for coffee, however, her blouse was half tucked in and had a stain on the sleeve. Her eyes looked tired and there were bags underneath. Her ready smile wasn’t anywhere to be found. “Are you doing okay?” Katie asked her.

Katie could read the hesitation in Alexandra’s eyes and told her that she wouldn’t judge her no matter what she shared. Alexandra wiped away a tear and told Katie what had been going on with her: How her student loan payments had been stretching her paychecks every month. How her credit card balances kept growing though she could only afford the minimum payments. Then her daughter’s unexpected surgery brought on a multitude of medical bills that she couldn’t pay.

Alexandra almost broke down as she told Katie that she had stopped answering the phone because the collection agencies kept calling. She said she couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. She looked as stressed as anyone Katie had ever seen.

The effects of financial stress

Financial stress can affect anyone of us, no matter your income level. Whether you’re worried about your investment portfolio or how you’ll make next month’s rent, financial stress can take its toll on us. A recent Gallup survey showed a correlation between rising student loan debt and decreased physical well-being. Stress effects can include:

  • Mental health issues: Depression, hopelessness and anxiety. Lack of sleep can lead to further health problems.
  • Unhealthy behaviors: Stress can lead you to increased smoking, drinking and eating; you may also find yourself skipping the gym and doctor visits.
  • Metabolic syndrome: A group of conditions that puts you at increased risk for diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
  • Inability to think clearly: With money worries consuming your mind, it’s all you can think about. Chronic stress can literally eat away at brain tissue.

Five steps to less financial stress

Improving your financial situation is the best way to relieve the symptoms of financial stress. But how do you make it better? Realistically, your solution is going to be dependent on your particular situation. But, here are five steps you can take that may help your situation:

  1. Make your budget: Even if it scares you, creating a budget will give you an accurate picture of your finances. A zero-based budget accounts for every penny and details your plan to save, spend and give. Following this budget will help you gain control of your spending. Dave Ramsey of Financial Peace University recommends using the debt snowball method to start clearing up your debts, working from the smallest to the largest debt. When the smallest one is paid in full, you roll the money you were paying on that debt into the next smallest balance.
  2. Create an emergency fund: You’ll want to set aside money to cover your unexpected expenses like car repairs, appliance issues, doctor co-pays and such.
  3. Decide what changes you can make: Are you overspending? Could you make more money? Could you trim small expenses like your latte or Netflix?
  4. Get professional help: An experienced financial professional can guide you through your best options. If you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, collection calls will stop immediately and a clean financial slate can do wonders to ease your fears.
  5. Set goals: Decide what you want to do with your finances. When you have goals, you are more likely to take action to meet them.

Like Alexandra, you can take steps to improve your financial situation. Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take the step.