Americans are stressed out. And, in many cases, money is the top cause of that stress.
In fact, a recent survey by Credit Sesame found that 82% of those who struggle with credit card debt experience stress. Forty percent feel shame. Many have even cried over their situation (25%).
But if you’ve ever faced money problems, you know the consequences of all that stress are much more than a few tears. From impaired cognitive functioning to serious diseases, here’s how stressing about money can affect your mind and body.
Your system elicits a “fight-or-flight” response
The body’s fight-or-flight response developed as a survival mechanism, allowing our ancestors to react quickly when faced with an immediate threat. When it kicks in, a flood of stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) is released to help you either stay and battle whatever adversary is in front of you or high-tail it out of there.
Though you may not have to worry about fending off predators in the wild, modern-day threats, such as a beastly financial problem, can set off the same type of reaction.
“The fight-or-flight response is hard on the body. It drains us,” said Aimee Daramus, a clinical psychologist in Chicago. Daramus said this type of stress can cause muscles to tense up to the point of serious pain. It also impairs the functioning of the immune system, making you more vulnerable to a lot of other illnesses. “It can cause headache and stomachache, even if you don’t consciously feel stressed,” she added.
You start making bad decisions, even though you know better
Even if you consider yourself an intelligent, rational person, your ability to make good choices is impaired by financial stress.
“Under stress, blood flow and electrical activity are reduced in the frontal and prefrontal lobes and increased in the survival parts of the brain, such as the amygdala,” Daramus said. Since these parts of the brain help with skills such as problem-solving, concentration, planning and impulse control, the reduced functioning in those areas can lead to poor decision-making.
When you’re worried or panicked about your financial situation, your decisions become more impulsive and driven by survival. “We act quickly and decisively, but not always as accurately as usual,” Daramus said. For example, you might take out a payday loan, even though you know the fees are equivalent to 300% APR or higher, because it solves your immediate cash-flow problem. Or you might spend money on luxuries that don’t make financial sense because it provides temporary relief from that feeling of stress.
Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues may arise
Considering that money is such an integral part of our lives, constant worry over it can lead to more serious psychological symptoms down the road. “When we are stressed about money, we can become highly anxious and even depressed,” said Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist in California.
Being burdened by large sums of debt, for instance, has been shown to take a major toll on mental health and, in some serious cases, even lead to suicidal thoughts.
A survey by The Ascent of Americans with at least $1,000 in debt found additional troubling links between happiness, fulfillment, self-esteem and financial distress. For instance, 38% of respondents said that their debt burden prevented them from sleeping well at night. Forty-eight percent said their debt negatively affected their optimism, while 47% said their debt negatively affected their self-esteem. Not surprisingly, 97% of respondents believed they would be happier if they didn’t have debt.
Chronic stress leads to serious physical ailments
Short-term stress is undoubtedly hard on the mind and body, but Manly said that chronic stress can lead to more serious and long-lasting harm.
“When adrenaline and cortisol levels are continually elevated, physiological damage occurs. As a result, many of those who suffer from chronic stress have greater rates of heart disease, diabetes, chronic sleep problems and other health issues,” Manly said.
Your risk of substance abuse and addiction increases
Unfortunately, dealing with stress and other health issues related to financial stress is a known risk factor for substance abuse, and those experiencing money problems have increased vulnerability to addiction and relapse.
For example, one study conducted for the School of Public Health at the State University of New York found a direct link between increased financial stress and increased drinking and smoking, especially among older men. A high level of stress has also been found to be a predictor of continued use of opiates, such as heroin. And often, addiction comes with its own financial difficulties, creating a vicious circle of stress and substance abuse.
For those in poverty, the situation is much worse
Though the symptoms of financial stress are very real and can be quite serious, there’s a difference between living paycheck-to-paycheck and living in poverty. And that difference is life-altering for those who live on the wrong side of the poverty line.
“Those who are poverty-stricken suffer from an inability to have their basic needs met,” Manly said. “Humans need access to shelter, food and clothing, and health care. When these basics are not accessible, health definitely suffers.”
Those health consequences can be particularly devastating for children, Daramus added. “Dangerous environments, crowded living situations and malnutrition can cause brain damage that’s tough to fix.” In this situation, the frontal and prefrontal areas never form correctly, which means the child may develop less impulse control, impaired thinking and decision-making, and poor attention and concentration, among other issues.
Don’t let money problems hurt your health
When you’re struggling financially, things can seem hopeless. And the truth is that the solution is rarely simple, especially for those who can barely make ends meet. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t help out there for you.
Try credit counseling: If you’re in over your head financially and don’t know where to start, a credit counselor can help. Available through nonprofits at little to no cost, credit counseling helps you create a plan for getting your finances back on track. Check out the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to find help near you.
Attend therapy: If you’re experiencing a decline in your mental health due to financial problems and stress, it’s a good idea to work with a therapist who can serve as a sounding board and recommend treatment. There are several ways to make therapy more affordable.
Seek healthy coping mechanisms: When you feel stressed out all the time, it can be tempting to pick up unhealthy habits that exacerbate your physical and mental symptoms. That’s why it’s so important to find simple, healthy methods of managing stress, in addition to getting help from professionals. Try running, cooking, meditating or another relaxing activity that helps calm your nerves and refocus your mind.