Stress and Taxes

Last week would have been a good week for a nervous breakdown. Aside from busting my foot and having to cram five days of work into four, I was preparing to do the family taxes. Truth be told, I don’t hate doing the taxes, but, much like every American, the whole situation can crank my stress dial to 11. “Money takes center stage at tax time, even if you might have been able to push it to the wings the rest of the year,” Michael McKee, a Cleveland Clinic psychologist and president of the U.S. branch of the International Stress Management Association, told WebMD, “Money is a major source of stress on people, and what tax season does is shine a great big spotlight on the issue.”

Money is a gigantic stressor, as is the idea that the Man is right there, watching you count your cash flow, and ready to pounce. Dr. McKee said that tax time is a stressor for “people,” not just on taxpayers, and that aspect interests me. To use his words, I’d like to “shine a great big spotlight” on how tax time is a stressor for everyone involved. It’s a tactic used in family therapy; you take an issue, discuss each party’s emotional response to the issue, and attempt to build an alliance based on similar emotion and heightened understanding. 

The Taxed Payers

“Financial stress is linked to health problems like depression and decreased immunity, and a leading cause of divorce,” and the months from January to April 15th are rife with such stress, according to a prominent stress website. A 2004 American Psychological Association study found that “nearly three-quarters of Americans cited money as a significant source of stress [and] marital contention…often, one partner in a marriage is a spender who avoids any discussion of money, while the other partner is a saver and a worrier,” Olivia Mellan, psychotherapist and financial self-help author, noted. “The result is resentment at tax time, when both partners must examine how their habits are affecting progress toward their financial goals.”

Financial counselor Karen McCall has many clients who so dread taking deductions, making math mistakes or appearing false that the lead up to April 15th is akin to a deer in the street stuck in a semi’s headlights. “They’re paralyzed because the IRS is an authority figure, and if they have unresolved issues around authority figures in their lives, that can cause a lot of fear.”

According to Dr. McKee, some of that fear of mistakes can be valid. He’s noted that taxpayers who have survived IRS audits “can suffer from posttraumatic stress syndrome for years afterward during tax season.”

De-Stress Tip: There are many ways to lower the tax season stress of taxpayers. If you do your own taxes try to prepare in short (one hour or less depending on stress level) increments with small, achievable goals. Meet the goal and directly after have a reward waiting for yourself. Aromatherapy candles or incense have been shown to lower stress. Calming music is another tip. Reviewing last year’s return, if you received a tax return, is a great way to affirm last years’ success and remind yourself of the, hopefully, big cash reward at the end. Perhaps tape it to your desk to remind you as you work. You also can find more specific tax filing solutions and tips at If you don’t do your own taxes, you can still use the tips in preparing your file for your accountant. Everyone can benefit from this organization tip: Keep a box for anything you know you want to deduct throughout the year, then, when the tax season hits, you can already feel prepared.

Accounting for the Accountants

Tax season is like a marathon race; it’s a grueling 10-week test of your endurance.
-Sandi Smith, CPA

If doing your own taxes is too stressful or complex, that stress gets passed down the line to accountants like Barbara Halpern or those at her firm in Connecticut. She told WebMD that “Spring is also the season when her workweek blooms to 80 hours or more. Accompanying those long work hours are the colds, migraines, dizziness, and weight swings…we hate the spring and nice weather. It’s not supposed to get warm until April 16.”

“I used to eat my way through tax season, David Dugan, owner of a small accounting firm in Los Alamitos, CA said in the same article. “That’s how I handled my stress.” For Dugan, tax season meant “late nights in the office followed by a McDonald’s run. As deadlines approached, a twitch would develop in one eye.”

Big Four accounting firms credit much of their high burn out rate to the stress of tax season when it’s customary to see accountants “drink too much coffee to stay alert during the day and then take tranquilizers or drink alcohol to get to sleep at night,” Dr. McKee said. This promotes a constant state of irritability, anxiousness and high tension, which can lead to anger management issues, depression and some reports of cardiac problems.

De-Stress Tip: My best advice for the accountants of the world—you brave, math-loving souls, your world is so alien to me!—aside from the same tips for tax payers, is similar to what we do as psychotherapists; Buffers and Boundaries. Following your work day, no matter when it ends, take some personal time before walking through the door of your home. It can be as simple as a 15 minute walk, keeping a fun book in your car to read or going on a short shopping trip. Whatever you enjoy. The action will create a buffer between you high-stress day and a more relaxing night. Plus it gives you a reward at the end of your day. Boundaries are for those clients who are anxious or meticulous and won’t stop calling with one more question or found document. Let your work day have a set start and end time, and you may find that you need to set even firmer call limits or call times with some clients. If you feel guilty, remember, it’s to keep your attention where it belongs, on doing quality work for your clients, not soothing anxiety. That’s my job. Sandi Smith, CPA has a full page of professional tips for accountants but sums up by saying “Go the distance by planning ahead, taking frequent rest stops, and looking forward to the reward at the finish line.”

 Going Postal

Tax season brings an exponential increase of paper mail, all culminating in a one day frenzy to get a post mark. According to, “If your post office is normally open until 5pm, they could be open as late as 7PM or 8PM or even midnight in some cases” this coming April 15th.

Remember where “going postal” came from? Though studies in the last 20 years have further defined that “postal workers were no more inclined than others to commit workplace violence” the nation has been hard pressed to forget the string of post office shooting which began in 19 when  Patrick Sherrill killed 14 people and wounded six” then took his own life. “The whole incident took only 15 minutes and 50 rounds of ammunition” but a term was born. That term, as reported in the St. Petersburg Times, “is one that the USPS does not approve of…and have made attempts to stop people from using the saying. Some postal workers, however, feel it has earned its place appropriately.”

Thirty Five people were killed in the Eighties and Nineties. As recently as 2006 a female postal worker in California returned to her office three years after being put on “medical disability for unspecified mental problems in June 2003 after co-workers reported her acting strangely and called sheriff’s deputies,” and killed herself and six workers.

This shooting reminded everyone involved of Sherrill’s killings and the discussion of if he, or the California postal worker, were “driven by some inner demons, or simply exploded because of pressure related to [their] job…and that postal workers were under so much pressure they were all apt to snap and resort to violence at any time” was again opened. Tax season, late hours, an endless barrage of incoming mail, a lumbering weight of heavy mail bags, and the stress of all those tax returns, now shifted into their hands, adds to that postal pressure.

De-Stress Tip: Don’t shoot people. Take breaks as often as you need, even if it’s just some deep breathing and muscle relaxation in the bathroom. Plan a day off in the week following April 15th and fight the urge to use alcohol or sleeping pills to rest after unusual hours as they can cloud your over-taxed thinking. Yoga is great for sore muscles and calm minds.  

The Taxed Man is a website where people who have done the job, can rate the job. The job of an IRS worker has been titled “Overworked, Underpaid” and that’s not even at tax time. Previous IRS workers have noted that “Poor management, unrealistic goals to manage inventory,” mean that the “work is never completed in timely manner due to excessive burden on Revenue Officers.” All of the stress of the nation which was passed from tax payers and accountants to postal workers now lands in this over stuffed in-box. And very stressed people now want their money.

Not much is known about the specific manifestations of this stress—present government employees don’t seem to be interviewed much—but past employees have reported that the “work/life balance difficult to manage in this position” and that there is a “high turnover in positions.”

De-Stress Tip: Any elephant is eaten one bite at a time. Set small, achievable goals and begin to practice self-forgiveness if the task you are trying to complete is seemingly insurmountable. Take time to speak to a supervisor and share your struggles openly. Most employers will welcome the honest dialogue, potentially offer suggestions, and affirm that you are doing your best at the nearly impossible. Feeling heard and appreciated does wonders for daily stress.

The Return on Taxes

 Aside from those specific tips, I offer these more general approaches. See what fits for you.

 Here are some tax-themed movies.

 Here’s 25 stress relievers for every day use.

 Here’s some tips from the tax man, himself.

 And finally, if you are lucky enough to be near a massage school, many like these in Tampa and Michigan offer free massages to de-stress on tax day. Find one and call.

Tax season will come and tax season will go. I often find that my blinders go up when I am bogged down gathering receipts or at the computer. I feel isolated with my burden of taxation. Another great stress reliever is developing sympathy and empathy for another’s plight. It gets you out of your own head and engages your heart. I hope this article might have brought a bit of that relief to your stress, as it did mine.


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