As of September 2021, American households had $15.24 trillion in debt, a record high. For most Americans, debt is a fact of modern life.

How are we coping with that debt within ourselves and our relationships?

High consumer debt is associated with negative mental health outcomes. But what about student loan debt? Does it have the same impact?

You may have heard the phrase “good debt.” When people use that phrase, they’re generally referring to debt like student loans or mortgages — debt in service of a great investment, like your education or property. In opposition to, say, credit card debt.

The premise isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s a bit too simplistic.

People take on debt for lots of reasons, whether it’s credit card debt, medical debt, or student loan debt.

And while all debt may not be created equal, all debt has the potential to negatively affect your emotional wellbeing and your relationships.

Don’t worry — this isn’t going to be all doom and gloom. Student loan debt doesn’t have to lead to emotional or relationship dysfunction. Managing student loan anxiety requires honesty, connection, and action.

How student loan debt affects your mental health

There’s no shortage of grim statistics about the impact of student loans on mental health.

Why share these statistics?

Two reasons. First, it’s important to realize you’re not alone. If you’re struggling emotionally under the weight of your student loans, you’re in the company of millions of other borrowers.

Second, effectively managing difficult emotions requires being honest about them. Ignoring the anxiety or depression you feel about your student loans won’t make the feelings (or your loans) go away. And it may even get worse. Some people who struggle with anxiety about high debt loads end up overspending — and creating more debt — as a way to manage their emotions.

But I promised this wouldn’t be a doom and gloom article. That’s because there are steps you can take to cope with your anxiety and to make more progress on your loans so that one day you can be totally and completely done with them.

Talk with a mental health professional

As a society, we’re collectively dealing with a pandemic, social unrest, the student loan crisis, racial inequity, and a melting planet. We should probably all be talking with a mental health professional.

If, on top of all that, you’re having serious anxiety about your student loans, talking to someone is a definite next step.  

How do you know if it’s time to see a therapist or counselor? There’s no bright line. You don’t have to be falling apart to benefit from therapy.

But if your anxiety about your student loan debt is making it difficult for you to function, if you’re getting into fights about it with your significant other, if you’re checking your balance multiple times a day, if you’re having negative thoughts about your self-worth because of your loans, and absolutely if you’re thinking about self-harm or suicide — it’s time to talk to someone.

Contact a suicide prevention hotline if you’re considering suicide.

A therapist won’t be able to do anything about your student loan debt. But they will be able to help you work through the emotions around it. If you’re able to release any shame or guilt you have or move past the anxiety, you’ll likely be able to make more progress on the loans themselves.

Work with a credit counselor

Taking positive action can help reduce anxiety, and working with a credit counselor is a great place to start. Credit counselors generally work at non-profit organizations, and they’re trained to help you develop a plan for your specific financial situation.

Say you want to pay off your loans quickly so you can finally buy a house. They can work with you to clarify your financial situation and develop a budget that meets your goals.

If you’re struggling to meet your minimum monthly payments, they may be able to set up a debt management plan. Under one of these plans, you make one payment directly to the credit counseling organization rather than multiple payments to different creditors.

You can find a credit counselor near you through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Take a small step

Sometimes feelings of powerlessness or overwhelm can turn into anxiety and depression. If you’re in such a state of panic that you’ve become frozen with fear over your student loans, combat the feelings by taking action.

Making a full plan might feel like too much. But what’s one thing you can do right now to make progress on your student loans?

Maybe you sign up for autopay if you haven’t already and reduce your interest rate. Maybe you join The Daily Dolr so you’re making extra payments each month without thinking about it. Maybe you do 10 minutes of research on loan consolidation.

Once you’ve taken that step (and not before), write down the next small step you can take. Do that one tomorrow.

See: From a Ballooning Loan Balance to a Pay-off Plan

How student loan anxiety impacts your relationship

We’ve already talked about how money conflict can be a big strain on a relationship — and ways to keep your relationship strong when you have debt.

But there’s more at issue here than the money (or the debt) itself. It’s clear that for many of us, there’s also some intense anxiety over the debt. And that type of anxiety can’t help but have an impact on our closest relationships.  

In fact, one common symptom of anxiety is irritability or anger that’s difficult to control — like lashing out at the people closest to you. These behaviors are often a result of the fight or flight response because anxiety is really about fear. What happens if I can’t make these payments? What if I’m paying these for the rest of my life, and we never get to buy a house? What if my wife resents me because I have all this debt and she doesn’t? What if I can’t save for retirement because I’m still paying my student loans?

The key here is honesty: talk to your partner about what you’re feeling. Let them know if you’re thinking day and night about your student loans. Tell them if you’re feeling frustrated and furious all the time. Or if you’re paralyzed by indecision.

You know all those steps we talked about to help with student loan anxiety? You can also do them with your partner.

Go to couples counseling if you’re struggling to talk about money or debt (or your feelings about them) in a productive way. Go see a credit counselor together and figure out a budget that meets both of your needs. Let your partner help you figure out the next small step if you’re feeling too overwhelmed.

Enlist your partner as a…well…partner in your student loan journey. Sharing your feelings can reduce the anxiety’s hold and allow you and your partner to work together to make progress.

See: Marrying with Student Loan Debt: I Do or I Don’t?

Another great next step is to make your regular purchases start working for you. Get access to Shop & Pay, where you get money for your student loans just by buying the things you need.

Contributed by Katie Taylor.