Are your debts making you sick? There’s a growing mountain of research that says it sure can. The journal Social Science and Medicine, for example, released a study that found individuals with higher debt had higher blood pressure, higher stress levels, and poorer general health — and this was in young people, aged 24 to 32. In a 2008 AP-AOL study at the height of the US mortgage crisis, those reporting high levels of debt stress suffered from stress-related illnesses including ulcers, migraines, back pain, anxiety, depression and even heart attacks.
Stress triggers the same fight-or-flight response that’s plagued humanoids since the beginning of time — the effects of reacting to a shrinking bank account can be the very same as being surprised by a saber-tooth tiger. Your heart races, stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol are released into your system, and you’re poised to take on the tiger or run like hell. But when it’s the bank account getting to you, tiger-slaying isn’t an option, and the stress can just build and build. Hearburn, headaches, and stomach knots are all common symptoms of a build-up of stress.
It’s a vicious cycle in the bedroom, too, where anxiety about debts keeps you up, and you can’t heal from the anxiety because you’re sleep-deprived. Your reaction times and creativity are affected, so you’re not performing as well through the day, which makes you worry and stay up at night.
But it’s not the amount of debt that can make your heart race, it’s weather you let it get to you
According to Stanford University researcher Kelly McGonigal, PhD, “Basically, it invades your home, your work, what you’re able to provide for your family, and your fantasies for the future. There are studies that show it’s not how much money you owe that predicts depression and health problems. It’s how much you worry about it.”
If your worries about money and the stress they create are starting to affect your health, here are some ways to cope better:
– Think about the worst-case scenario. This may sound counter-intuitive, but sticking your head in the sand or coping with drugs, alcohol, food, or other crutches are short-term “solutions” at best. Look down the road at the bigger picture and realize that there is no tiger at the door. Your life is not in jeopardy. Your kids are healthy. You are blessed to live in a great country. Even if you lose your house, you won’t end up on the street. You’ll still have your family. If you love your work or your hobby, even better. Concentrate on the positive.
– Write it out. Journalling can be a powerful coping mechanism for stress. Keep a little notebook handy and every time you find yourself stressing about money, jot down the worry, as well as any ideas for something you could do to help alleviate the worry, such as give up your Starbucks coffee in the morning or calling a friend to unload a little of your burden.
– Start doing better. Meet with a credit counsellor, set up a spending plan, and start behaving in a way that will help you get different results in the future.
Remember what Shakespeare said — nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Yes, you should take steps to clear your debts and relieve the associated stress by eliminating the root cause, but in the meantime, learning to cope without stressing over things you’re not in a position to immediately change might even save your life.