Surging gas prices are triggering financial anxiety. Mental health experts share how to cope

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Feeling anxious about surging gas prices? Mental health professionals share their tips for working through those emotions. (Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)
Feeling anxious about surging gas prices? Mental health professionals share their tips for working through those emotions. (Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

Despite reports to the contrary, gas prices aren't actually at a record high, but there's no question that Americans are paying more at the pump these days thanks to factors like inflation and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And with President Joe Biden's announcement that the United States will ban Russian oil, natural gas and coal to put pressure on President Vladimir Putin, prices are bound to rise above the already-steep $4.19 per gallon average.

While Biden has acknowledged that paying more for gas will be a sacrifice — "defending freedom is going to cost," he conceded in Tuesday's announcement — it's one that is straining Americans not just financially, but mentally, too. Beyond the late-night jokes and Shaq's dubious "gas tank math," a quick scroll of social media or forums like Reddit turns up posts from folks feeling the pinch in an economy still reeling from the pandemic, supply chain woes and inflation that's seen grocery bills and other essentials take a larger chunk from paychecks. Many are also agonizing over not being able to afford gas to get to work or school.

It's natural to feel anxious amid this financial insecurity and a "cycle of uncertainty and negativity" dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, social injustice and now, the conflict in Ukraine, says Los Angeles-based psychologist Bonnie Zucker.

"Worrying about finances is a huge stressor for people," Zucker tells Yahoo Life, pointing to the dread that typically strikes during tax season or whenever it's time to pay bills.

As a licensed mental health counselor and financial therapist in New York City, Aja Evans helps clients work through their values around money, including the family or environmental factors that informed those beliefs, and how that has affected their emotions. She notes that someone's anxiety about their emotion may stem more from how they were raised to think about money rather than represent what's actually happening with their finances in the present day.

"I think it's really important that people just pause to think, why am I anxious? Am I anxious because of my belief in money, or am I anxious right now because ... I only have $100 in my monthly budget to get from point A to point B, and I can't do that anymore because gas prices are so high and it goes over my budget?" Evans tells Yahoo Life. "They do not have to be mutually exclusive. But [it's worth] just thinking about, 'Hey, am I always anxious about money? Or am I anxious about money right now because something's going on?'"

Zucker adds that the anxiety surrounding rising gas prices may be exacerbated by people feeling like it's a situation out of their control due to the global forces at play, and one that's expected to get worse before it gets better.

While finding ways to assert some semblance of control may help manage stress, the first step, Zucker says, is to take a beat and "just validate [those feelings] and have some self-compassion — this is very stressful, particularly for people [for whom] this does have a significant financial impact."

As paying more for gas is likened to growing a victory garden or called a "patriotic donation" by actor and activist George Takei, it's important to acknowledge the financial and emotional toll it'll have on those whose budgets are already at a breaking point. The sacrifice will hit harder for lower-income households, and dismissing concerns about paying more as entitled complaints, or feeling guilty for seeing it as an unbearable burden, isn't helpful.

"I think it's really easy for people to say, 'Oh my goodness, if you're financially hurting because of the increase in gas prices, then you are not thinking about how convenient our life is, or not thinking about what's going on globally,'" says Evans. "And that's not the case. If somebody only has $20 to make sure they can get to and from work, it's more like, 'I don't actually have means to make my ends meet. And that is a problem of real crisis for me and my family. So I need to figure out how are we going to manage this financial stress as we are dealing with the global stress of everything that's happening in Ukraine and Russia.'"

She adds, "People can be really concerned about what's going on and still be concerned about not having enough money to pay for their gas."

What can help "manage this financial stress"? Like Zucker, Evans recommends taking a "pause" — and a calming deep breath — before making any decisions. Once a person is more relaxed and less pent-up, they consider the more practical solutions on offer, whether it's making budget changes, seeking out more affordable gas stations in your area, arranging carpools or looking into public transportation options. Making a plan can offer a sense of control, but, as with any situation involving anxiety, Evans notes the importance of ensuring that basic physical and mental needs are being met.

She rattles off a list of things to consider: "Am I sleeping well enough? Am I making sure I'm taking care of myself and my body? Am I making sure I'm taking care of my family to the best of my abilities? Am I getting outside? Am I moving my body? Just exercising in some way, shape or form helps people relax — and that's what we're trying to do. How do I lower my anxiety when I don't have a lot of control right now?"

From a mental health perspective, Zucker also suggests avoiding "doom-scrolling" on social media or consuming news that "makes it easy to catastrophize." It may also be helpful to consider the fluctuations in pricing that have occurred over time — with the 2008 recession being a notable example — and the sense that the situation will, at some point, change.

"I think it's important to remind yourself of other times in your life when things were scary and felt out of your control — and how you got yourself through it," Zucker says.

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