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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?

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

The stress may be correlated with physical symptoms like heartburn, headaches, and abdominal pains. "If you have a knot in your stomach all the time, or if you're feeling anxious and worried a lot of the time, that would be an area of concern," he says. "These are signs that stress is starting to take a toll and you should give it more attention than the average person."

Former financial reporter and author of Zero Debt: The Ultimate Guide to Financial Freedom Lynette Khalfani-Cox knows firsthand the havoc debt can wreak on your life. "I was living above my means," she says. "It's a tremendous burden. The true cost of debt and financial problems isn't just the interest rate you're paying to Mastercard or Visa. The true cost is the toll that it's taking on your life and your relationships."

By making a series of important changes, Khalfani-Cox was able to pay off $100,000 in credit-card debt in three years and now coaches others struggling with the same issues.

Is debt making you tired?

"I am a big ball of stress," admits Chris, a 30-something blogger who writes about dealing with $75,000 in credit card debt and a possible foreclosure at "Our mountain of debt is constantly on my mind," he says, "but I don't feel as stressed about it since I started blogging." Before, he would often stay up until 3 a.m. worrying about how he would take care of his wife and two young kids.

The stressors do invade the bedroom. Frustrated designer Lurie-Terrell lies staring at the ceiling for hours or wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about his savings. "It's a vicious cycle," he says. "If you're aware that you're stressed out, that makes you even more stressed out because you don't have any control over it."

There's so much information on how bad the economy is that it heightens people's anxiety, says WebMD sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD. And that anxiety prevents people from being able to fall asleep.

"You may be working really hard throughout the day and by the time you get into bed, it's the first chance you've had to think about the day," he says. "And your brain starts going and going. People basically amp themselves up because they're so worried about paying the mortgage and bills. While they may be physically tired and sleep deprived, the constant worry actually prevents them from being able to sleep."

Once you start worrying about something that is emotionally charged, it causes autonomic arousal, which can affect everything from muscle tension to anxiety. Studies have shown that it takes longer to heal when you're sleep deprived, Breus says. Your reaction time, thinking, and creativity are slowed, so everything can be affected by sleep deprivation.

"We're going to see a slight increase until we see better economic news coming down the pipe," Breus says. "People who were worriers before are certainly going to continue to worry. And then we'll have a new group who are going to have situational-related insomnia. We saw the same thing happen after 9/11 where lots of people were having nightmares about terrorist attacks. Obviously, that's a far graver situation than something like finances."

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