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The Debt-Stress Connection

Gas and food prices are sky-high, the stock market is down, and the housing market is in the doldrums. But can worrying about the health of your bank account really make you sick?
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Matthew Hoffman, MD

Graphic designer Joshua Lurie-Terrell of Sacramento, Calif., described himself as an easy-going person. That is, he did until the market started tanking and he and his wife lost half of their retirement savings.

"I never let stress run my life before. But ever since money got tight, I've found that I'm a prisoner to it," he says. He worries that if he fills up the gas tank, he won't be able to afford the movies on the weekend, or if he keeps paying for health insurance, he won't be able to get his wife the birthday present she wants. With a baby on the way, he has seriously considered taking a second job on the night shift.

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But then this past spring, the 37-year-old suffered a heart attack, even though he had no warning signs or risks. His doctors point to stress as a major contributing factor.

"I feel like I'm a completely different person than I was," he tells WebMD. "I would attribute more than 90% to worrying about my finances. I've tried to do everything that Suze Orman says to do, but we still have problems."

Lurie-Terrell is certainly not alone. Money is a leading source of stress for Americans, according to a 2007 survey by the American Psychological Association. In the survey, 73% of the respondents cited money as a significant source of stress in their lives. Today, more than three out of every four American families are in debt, according to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances.

An AP-AOL study reveals that debt-related stress is 14% higher in 2008 than in 2004. Those who report high levels of debt stress suffer from a range of stress-related illnesses including ulcers, migraines, back pain, anxiety, depression, and heart attacks.

With fuel and food prices on the rise and the economic crunch targeting more Americans, this is a critical time to examine these serious health concerns and stress management.

The debt-stress connection: Fighting the saber-tooth tiger

There's a general reaction to stress that's been a part of our genetic makeup from the time we were cavemen, says Jay Winner, MD. Winner is author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life. Back then, when a saber-tooth tiger appeared, your heart would race, your pupils would dilate, and your body would release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. That way, you'd be able to fight the saber-tooth tiger -- or run.

Our "fight-or-flight" system evolved as a way to physically deal with a physical danger.The problem is now that same response gets activated by everyday encounters. For example, getting stuck in a traffic jam or arguing with your spouse can bring it on.

"One of the bigger things that activates it is when people see trouble in their finances," Winner tells WebMD. "If people don't know how to deal with this higher adrenaline level, then the levels of stress can build and build. This can cause real physical and physiologic changes in the body that can account for people feeling poorly."

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