People walk past the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) at Wall Street on March 23, 2021 in New York City. - Wall Street stocks were under pressure early ahead of congressional testimony from Federal Reserve Chief Jerome Powell as US Treasury bond yields continued to retreat. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
How is the wealth gap being affected by the pandemic?
03:04 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Since coronavirus shuttered the world in the early months of 2020, the financial impact has taken a significant – and often invisible – toll.

Mental health has gone awry for many during the pandemic, but these experiences are especially more acute among people who are economically less fortunate. Among US adults age 18 or older, prevalence of depression symptoms was more than threefold higher during the Covid-19 pandemic than before, according to a September 2020 study. Additionally, having lower income, less than $5,000 in savings, and exposure to more stressors such as job loss were linked with a 50% higher risk of depression symptoms during the pandemic.

And financial instability can, of course, more immediately impact physical health, too. More than a year into the pandemic, some adults still worry daily about being able to afford their housing, feeding themselves and their families, and paying for health care for themselves and their families. Some readers have shared with CNN Business how their financial anxieties manifested as irascibility, depression, excessive alcohol consumption, dark thoughts and desperation.

A retired woman budgets on a low income.

What happened after past recessions is one informative pattern as we consider the potential effects of financial stress long after the pandemic is over, said Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist and cofounder of Your Mental Wealth Advisors and the Financial Psychology Institute.

“We have some studies that were done in the wake of the (2007-2009) financial crisis,” said Klontz, an associate professor of practice in financial psychology and behavioral finance at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business in Nebraska.

“On an individual level, financial strain is associated with depression and anxiety and relationship problems. But we’ve also seen it collectively when a community’s hit by foreclosures. Even if your house isn’t foreclosed on, there’s this collective stress everyone experiences, and hospitalization rates tend to go up.”

When crises beget perpetual fear

The possible implications of financial anxiety can be traced all the way back to the Great Depression, the decade-long worldwide economic downturn that began in 1929.

Shortly thereafter, there wasn’t much research on the mental health repercussions as “we hadn’t really defined trauma or post-traumatic stress as really even an issue,” Klontz said. Anecdotally, it “led to a traumatic experience for many people. And, if you know anyone who lived through it, it created an entire generation of hoarders who are worried about not having enough for the future – so, lots of anxiety, like a scarcity mentality and mindset and a deep fear of not having enough that seemed to be sort of crossed through the entire culture.”

After Klontz’s grandfather lost all his money when the banks collapsed during the Depression, he was so traumatized that he never put a dollar in the bank for the rest of his life, instead using a lockbox, Klontz said.

Klontz’s grandfather’s post-Depression behavior is just one example of how a difficult period can have a lasting impact by shifting beliefs and anxiety around money, Klontz said in a 2020 interview with the American Psychological Association. Experiencing some degree of stress during financial crises is normal and denying the situation wouldn’t be helpful. But if left unprocessed, these anxieties can become dysfunctional over time, manifesting in extreme, irrational or obsessive behaviors, Klontz said.

Experts have advice for how you can notice whether you’re headed down that path, and how to both mentally and practically manage during this time.

The line between normal and dysfunctional

Rigidly holding on to beliefs about who or what you can trust and how the world works, despite contradicting evidence or possibilities, is one sign that normal anxieties originating from one stressful financial circumstance are starting to take over, Klontz said. Other signs include problems in your relationship, ability to sleep at night and emotional functioning, Klontz said.

“When you see manifestations of hoarding and you see compulsive gambling, compulsive buying, 80% of people who exhibit those types of behaviors also have a history of trauma,” Klontz said.

It’s a “common reaction to going through a period of scarcity and trauma and being fearful of not having enough,” he added. “It’s the brain’s response to try to survive and to make sure that you’re safe.”

The stronger your emotions were during the initial situation, the more you might hold onto these patterns, which some mental health professionals recognize as codependency, a dysfunctional relationship pattern wherein a person is psychologically dependent on, or controlled by, people, behaviors, things or substances.

The impetus of dysfunctional behavior in this context is often a worry around a stressful or traumatic financial issue, and then the worry becomes “really difficult to shake,” Klontz said. “For example, growing up in poverty, the belief is that there’s not enough money or there’ll never be enough money.”

“If that’s really attached to emotion, one of two things happens: People will become an Ebenezer Scrooge type, where it’s like they’re so afraid of not having enough that they might be … making money, but they can never enjoy life. So that’s where they’re hoarding money, they’re sticking it aside because they’re so afraid,” Klontz explained. Conversely, this belief can lead to a learned helplessness wherein someone thinks, “‘If there will never be enough money, why bother trying?’” he added. “’So if I can get a credit card, I’m gonna run it up.’”

These are symptoms of “delayed grief,” when you’re “unwilling to accept or discuss the deep-down emotion that you’re feeling,” said Sonya Lutter, a professor in the department of applied human sciences at Kansas State University and a certified financial planner. Until you acknowledge those emotions and worries, she added, you might address them with surface-level things that make you feel good temporarily.

Coping and resources for affordable support

Talking with a mental health professional to process current financial stress or any delayed, financial-related grief in the future can help, Lutter said. Several organizations offer mental health support for people facing insurance or financial barriers, including Mental Health America, Black Minds Matter UK and the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network.

The US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has resources on managing with reduced income during the pandemic, Lutter said. You can find additional tips on accessing support for food, medical issues, disabilities and more here, and eating healthy while on a low budget here.

Another way to prevent or stop catastrophic thinking is by practicing mental flexibility so you can adapt to changing circumstances, Klontz said. If you had lived through the Great Depression and concluded you couldn’t ever again trust banks with your money, for example, you would write your belief into a paragraph and then analyze it.

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“To make that more accurate, it’s like, ‘Well, sometimes you can’t trust banks with your money. And these are the circumstances in which you can, and these are the circumstances in which you can’t,’” Klontz said. That way, you’re not relying on partial truths in every circumstance.

CNN’s Jeanne Sahadi contributed to this story.