According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress caused by debt and financial problems can cause major health problems. It can also cause people to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking or eating too much.
In a 2012 study about stress conducted by the APA, 69 percent of Americans named money as a source of stress. Other major stressors in people’s lives were work (65 percent), the economy (61 percent), family obligations (57 percent), relationships (56 percent), health problems within the family (52 percent), and personal health issues (51 percent).
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s reaction to any environmental or situational change that demands an immediate response. When a person feels threatened, their brain goes into fight-or-flight mode and orders the pituitary and adrenal glands to step up the production of cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones in turn cause the body to increase the heart rate, blood pressure and overall energy so the body can meet the challenge or threat.
Stress is normal. People experience stressful events all the time, and they also put stress on themselves. Stress can even be good for a person, for it can encourage alertness and adaptability. It can enable a person to meet a deadline or even save a life.
Stress becomes a negative, however, when it’s unrelenting. If a person is constantly under stress and gets no respite or relief, their health can suffer. Financial stress tends to fit that category, for it can take months or even years for a person to dig themselves out of a financial hole. Unending stress can cause a negative reaction called distress, the symptoms of which include high blood pressure, upset stomach, headaches, chest pain and insomnia.
Distress is unfortunately very common. Forty-three percent of all adults have reported health problems caused by or linked to stress. Seventy-five to 90 percent of all visits to a doctor’s office are due to health problems caused or worsened by stress.
Stress over financial problems is linked to such conditions as sleep disturbances, ulcers, migraines, and heart attacks. It can even increase the risk of developing diabetes. Stress is also linked to anxiety, depression, asthma, skin problems and arthritis.
Researchers aren’t entirely sure how stress increases the risk of heart disease. They aren’t certain if the stress itself directly increases the chances of heart disease, or if it simply exacerbates conditions like high cholesterol or high blood pressure that increase the chances of heart disease. It may be that stress both directly causes heart disease and exacerbates other conditions linked to it.
Stress does cause the production of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and chronically elevated levels of stress hormones may harm a person’s health. Studies have also shown that stress alters the way blood clots, and that can increase the chances of a heart attack, which is caused by a blood clot in the coronary artery. The clot blocks the artery and thus prevents the needed blood and oxygen from reaching the heart’s tissues. Those tissues quickly become damaged and can even die. In the US, over a million people have a heart attack every year.
A peptic ulcer is a sore that develops in the lining of the stomach, esophagus or duodenum (first part of the small intestine). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 25 million Americans will develop ulcers sometime in their lives. The CDC also reports that most ulcers are caused by a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Some medications, like aspirin, iron tablets and non-inflammatory steroids, can also cause ulcers.
Stress was once believed to be a direct cause of ulcers, as was spicy food. Researchers no longer believe this to be the case — but they do believe that stress and spicy food can exacerbate the symptoms by irritating the stomach lining. In a peptic ulcer, the most common symptom is a burning pain in the abdomen. The pain usually starts between meals and is relieved when the patient eats or takes an antacid. The pain may come and go over several days or weeks, and it can occur anywhere between the breastbone and the navel. Ulcers can also cause anemia and bleeding.
Stress can not only exacerbate the symptoms of an ulcer, it can also mimic them. As there are many organs in the abdomen, identifying the cause of abdominal pain is often a challenge.
Researchers don’t yet know what exactly causes migraines, but genetic and environmental causes do seem to be involved. On the other hand, they do know what can trigger a migraine — and stress is one such trigger. Other triggers include certain medications, hormonal changes like those associated with pregnancy or menopause, changes in sleeping patterns, certain sensory stimuli, alcohol, caffeine, and some foods. Women are three times as likely to develop migraines as men are.
A migraine is a severe headache that can last from several hours to several days. It can cause an intense throbbing pain in one part of the head, and it is often accompanied by vomiting, nausea and an abnormally high sensitivity to sound and light. Migraines are sometimes accompanied or preceded by an aura or warning symptoms which can take the form of tingling in a limb, blind spots or flashes of light.
Stress definitely impairs a person’s ability to get a good night’s sleep. When a person is under stress, they don’t stop thinking about their money troubles or other problems, and those racing thoughts keep them awake at night. Lack of sleep has deleterious effects on the immune system, memory and mood, and it prevents the body from repairing muscles. It also makes people simply feel tired; over 50 percent of Americans reported feeling lazy or sluggish after sleeping poorly the night before.
Financial stress can affect sleep in a number of ways. First off, it simply prevents people from getting enough sleep. Experts believe that the average adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. The APA has stated that Americans in general would be healthier and happier if they slept an additional 60 to 90 minutes every night.
Stress also has a negative effect on the quality of sleep. In the APA’s report, 42 percent of respondents said they got only fair or poor sleep when under stress. A stressed person may make sleep problems worse by choosing the wrong coping mechanism. For example, substance abuse often makes insomnia worse.
There are several different types of sleep disorders that are linked to stress. A person with insomnia has trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. They also tend to wake up too early and wake up still feeling tired. Other common sleep disorders include sleepwalking, sleep apnea and narcolepsy. Bruxism and restless leg syndrome can exacerbate sleep disorders. Bruxism or teeth grinding is sometimes caused by stress. While restless leg syndrome is not directly caused by stress, it can be caused or exacerbated by sleep deprivation. It therefore creates a vicious cycle: a person sleeping poorly is likely to develop restless leg syndrome, which will probably impair their ability to sleep, and the lack of sleep will trigger a bout of restless leg syndrome…
Stress causes blood sugar levels to rise — which is normal. Stress hormones like cortisol raise blood sugar to give the body an energy boost. Fight-or-flight responses require energy, so the body prepares accordingly.
Most people have compensatory mechanisms that bring the blood sugar levels back to normal once the crisis has passed. In a person with diabetes, those mechanisms either don’t exist at all or are weaker than normal. Their blood sugar levels therefore remain elevated. Chronically high blood sugar levels can cause a host of health problems including kidney problems, nerve damage, blindness and cardiovascular disease. It is also, of course, the key sign of diabetes. Other symptoms include frequent urination, intense hunger and thirst, fatigue, abnormal weight loss or weight gain, bruises and cuts that don’t heal, and numbness or tingling in the feet and hands.
There are three types of diabetes: Type 1, Type 2, and gestational. The last is seen only in pregnant women. Type 2 diabetes is by far the most common type and occurs in about 90 percent of diabetic patients. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Unhealthy eating habits, like those seen in people under stress, can eventually therefore result in someone developing Type 2 diabetes.
Certain unhealthy behaviors triggered by stress can cause elevated blood sugars and thus compound the problem. Some stressed people will either skip meals, binge eat or overdose on junk food. Other people may feel too tired or tense to exercise, and skipping workouts can impair their health; exercise is a good way to reduce blood sugar levels.
In their 2012 study, the APA that people under stress often resorted to unhealthy ways of coping. For example, 36 percent of the respondents confessed to either eating too much and/or eating junk food when stressed. Thirteen percent said they drank alcohol to cope, and 42 percent said that stress impaired their ability to sleep.
One of the few positive results of the survey was that 52 percent of the respondents exercised to manage stress. Even so, only 17 percent of those respondents who had described themselves as under “high stress” believed they were doing a good job of managing it.
In addition to deleteriously affecting health, financial stress can also harm a person’s ability to think clearly. The journal Science published a study in 2013 that demonstrated this. The researchers had people fill out questionnaires in which the test-takers had to imagine paying car repair bills. The researchers also gave the subjects a standard IQ test and checked their stress levels. They found that people under a lot of stress, regardless of their income, did poorly on the IQ test.
Dr. Eldar Shafir, a Princeton University psychologist and co-author of “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” noted “The most valuable lesson from our studies is that juggling the everyday challenges of poverty imposes substantial demands on cognitive capacity, leaving less ‘mind’ for other tasks, and plans, and successes.” In other words, poor people are no dumber than anybody else; they’re too stressed out to be able to think clearly.