Practical tips for managing mental health in a cost of living crisis
Public spending and borrowing increased across the world during the pandemic, leading to tax rises that have contributed to the cost-of-living squeeze, while most people's salaries have remained unchanged.
As the cost of living continues, people across the UK are feeling the strain more now than ever. This, coupled with the challenges many have faced because of the Covid-19 pandemic, means more people are struggling to maintain good mental health.
With money worries growing and feelings of uncertainty surfacing, people can start to feel depressed and anxious about their financial situation, so it is important to find help before it has a negative impact on daily life.
Poor mental health can affect anyone, no matter what their circumstances
Depression and anxiety disorders can affect anyone, but certain financial stressors may increase our vulnerability to mental health difficulties.
We can think about the cost-of-living crisis in the context of the work of American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, and his hierarchy of needs. Why the link between the two? Because the cost-of-living crisis is having a negative effect on the ability of an increasing number of people to meet basic human needs.
Maslow’s well-established theory explores how it is difficult to achieve personal growth (a sense of belonging, self-esteem, self-actualisation) if basic physiological and safety needs cannot be met. For example, the ability to pay for food, clothing or heating and rent/mortgage payments. These factors can have an impact on people's mental health because basic physiological and safety needs are unexpectedly under threat or may continue to be under threat due to growing financial pressures.
When basic needs are not being met, hopes are dashed and many start to experience hopelessness. Eventually, motivation is lost and this unfortunately leads to a spiral into depression, as illustrated by Maslow's famous 'Theory of human motivation' (1943) and his hierarchy of needs.
Although money doesn’t always guarantee happiness, it can help to cover our basic needs and motivate us to achieve more for ourselves.
Regardless of whether we have a common mental health problem, such as mild to moderate depression or an anxiety disorder, the cost-of-living crisis is creating a lot of uncertainty for people, and significant worry can also cause people to feel depressed.
Managing negative feelings
Everyone has problems from time to time, regardless of who you are, or what you do. Problems are an aspect of life. The issue isn’t having a problem, it is how we respond when we have such problems.
How do you know if you are struggling with your mental health due to your financial situation? Some people may feel shame or embarrassment and try to hide the problems. Shame often implies that the person has done something wrong or improper. But the truth is, the majority of people have not done anything wrong or improper.
There are many reasons that we are in the midst of a global economic crisis - a pandemic, outbreaks of war, broken fuel supply, manufacturing and supply chain disruption are only some of the reasons, but none of these are within our individual control. Therefore people need to reconsider any guilt or blame they may be attributing to themselves.
If people are already having difficulty coping with uncertainty, the cost-of-living crisis can supercharge their anxiety levels due to all the ‘what-if’s’. If someone already has a negative view of themself or the world, their mood is likely to be very low with motivational difficulties and they may lose motivation and a sense of purpose.
Key symptoms of depression involve negative thoughts and withdrawal. Sometimes people will find it hard to even get out of bed or they might find themselves struggling to find the motivation to do normal chores, housework, work, or engage in hobbies.
Add on to that the cost-of-living crisis, and it can lead to a sense of hopelessness – that circumstances will never get better and things are too difficult. Unfortunately, this has the potential to lead some people to self-harming behaviour or suicidal thoughts.
How to improve mental health in the cost-of-living crisis
Whilst the rising cost of living may not be ideal, no one has chosen on purpose to struggle financially. Many of the factors are external and not within our control.
Coping with feelings of embarrassment can be done by challenging why you feel this way.
People may have made past decisions that have been unwise. Whilst reflection is healthy, excessive thinking about “why did I do that” doesn’t change anything and often maintains us in a cycle of self-destruction.
Sometimes, it is worth acknowledging that the situation is not ideal and out of our control. This step will help someone to validate their difficulties. A simple “hey, that sounds difficult” or a “sorry to hear you are having a tough time” may sound hollow.
The first steps that we can take to alleviate that stark outlook might include exploring what meanings the person has placed on themselves when finding it hard to cope. Imagine a parent who is not able to buy enough food for their family. Might they have beliefs and assumptions about being useless, a failure or a bad parent? There are a number of thoughts leading from this that can easily cause a range of negative emotions resulting in low mood, anxiety and depression.
Helping someone learn how to question themselves can help them identify that a thought is a thought, not a fact. Simple questions to ask include:
- What evidence is there that this is true?
- Is there any other time you have found this to be incorrect?
- Could there be any other perspectives to look at this from?
Rather than relying on emotional response and biased thinking, people can seek out more accurate and realistic information. This can then be used to create a powerful revised or alternative thought, based on evidence that we can have confidence in, and hopefully reduce the distressing emotion.
How do we encourage people to have a conversation about this and ask for help if needed?
First, we need to normalise that this is a widespread problem and it is not a reflection of themselves, their worth or value as a person. Despite how modern life is portrayed by the media through TV adverts and the constant flow of lifestyle messaging on social media, it is normal for people to have problems from time to time.
Encourage people to approach their friends, family, or employers to talk about things or ask for help if needed. If someone is hesitant or reluctant to discuss their difficulties, then we may want to try to help them see the benefits of discussing the problem and asking for help. Try to think about what the opportunities are that may be present because of this situation, rather than focusing on the negative outcomes and blocks to progress.
Act now – don’t wait for motivation to come to you
At times, we may feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. There is a misconception that motivation will come and then we will act. However, I would encourage people to act first, and then see what effect that has on our motivation.
There may be tasks you are aware of that need doing, such as calling the bank, or energy company, or planning a budget, or selling unused items around the house for example. Prioritise which tasks might be most important and then schedule them into a weekly diary. The same principle applies for other activities for general and mental wellbeing, such as engaging in an activity or hobby that you may enjoy.
Why do we need to do this? Well, if doing things when we feel motivated or in the mood works for you, then carry on. However, if you are finding that important tasks are not being done and you have lost interest and motivation in your hobbies, then why would you want to continue using a strategy that you know does not work or give reliable results.
The choice is to continue doing something that you know does not work or choose to do something a bit different that may work.
To summarise, decide what needs to be done over the week, plan and schedule it in, and then try to stick to the plan even though you may not feel like it at the time. If it is important to you or your situation, then act on it. Do not wait for motivation which may never arrive.
In partnership with Onebright Mental Health
Onebright is a personalised on-demand mental healthcare company.