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Financial stress leads to crisis on the home front

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Mounting bills. Credit card payments. Looming layoffs.

As global economic troubles deepen, a growing number of Canadian families are facing their own financial crisis - and the stress that comes with diminished savings, dwindling investments and job uncertainty - according to psychologists and debt managers.

"I'd say the biggest change [in recent months] is in the type of people we see coming through the door," said David Thompson, director of marketing at Canada Debt Assistance, a Calgary-based debt management firm.

"Now we're seeing more professionals and people from a little bit higher income bracket. People you wouldn't think necessarily would need the debt assistance, with the new cars and nice clothes," he said.

Financial stress may have been a factor in the triple homicide-suicide of a family in Toronto last week. Husband and wife Keith and Wanda Delong had remortgaged their home for $240,000 in September. Their adult son also had a medical condition that may have required expensive medication.

There have been several reports in the United States of violence and suicide linked to the continuing financial meltdown.

Last month, a former money manager in California shot his wife, three sons and mother-in-law before killing himself. Also last month, a Tennessee woman killed herself when sheriff's deputies came to evict her from her foreclosed home. In Florida, a man shot his wife and dog, then set fire to the family's foreclosed home before killing himself.

While these are extreme examples, money woes and financial uncertainty inevitably create a sense of insecurity, anxiety and sometimes even panic, according to Katy Kamkar, clinical psychologist in the work, stress and health program at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

"It's the uncertainty that faces everyone. Will I have my house tomorrow? Will I be able to pay my bills?" Dr. Kamkar said. "When we're highly anxious, we tend to overestimate the stress involved. We tend to engage in catastrophic feelings. We might be making more negative predictions and we might also underestimate the resources available to us or some of the assets already available."

That is particularly true during the current economic crisis, Dr. Kamkar said.

"People are affected in so many different ways," she said. "People are talking about it and especially the uncertainty. People who have not been directly affected by it are stressed because of the uncertainty of what might happen to them."

Cash-flow worries can also exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues, or make an individual more prone to potential psychological issues, she said.

Many of her patients have expressed concern or worry over money as the economic crunch has worsened. That stress is accompanied by a range of symptoms, including inability to sleep, headache, upset stomach, mood changes, irritability and difficulty making decisions.

Sometimes, financial stress can build up to the point at which a person feels there is no way to recover. Signs that anxiety and stress may have reached dangerous levels includes if a person stops taking care of his or her appearance, gives up exercise and healthy eating, stops going out with friends and gives up other activities he or she once enjoyed.

Often, initial worries over money create a domino effect. A man worried about losing his job may also begin to contemplate how he will pay his bills, make his mortgage payments and afford basic necessities such as food if he is laid off.

"It's hard to focus on the positive things when you have people constantly hounding you from collection agencies and different creditors wanting to collect," Mr. Thompson said. "It's the psychological factor, I would think."

Even if the worst-case scenario never comes true, people continue to worry - and that is one of the dangerous habits that can make economic troubles seem much worse than they are, according to Rami Nader, psychologist at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver, B.C.

"One of the big things, and it's easier said than done, is to recognize that worrying isn't going to change things," Dr. Nader said. "All it's really doing is interfering with the person's ability to think logically and rationally through it."

One of the ways to cope with financial stress is to take steps to deal with the issue and solve problems that come up, Dr. Nader said. Talking to a financial planner, keeping up with exercise, a healthy diet and other self-maintenance routines, as well as taking a deep breath, realizing the crisis won't last forever, may go a long way toward alleviating recession stress, he said.

Additionally, people facing economic troubles often don't realize that they also have alternatives to bankruptcy, such as debt pooling or other repayment plans, that can get them back on their feet, said John de Wit, president of Debt Managers, a national company based in Abbotsford, B.C.

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