If an envelope has ever caused you to feel a flash of anxiety or dread, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans are reminded of their debt with every mail delivery of student loan bills, credit card statements, and late notices.
As you work to balance your finances, take notice if your mind or body feels off, too. Debt has a real effect on your mental and physical health. Be on the lookout for these issues and make a debt plan to take care of yourself, not just your bank balance.
It’s no secret that money is a major source of stress for most people. About 17 percent of people in the U.S. can’t cover monthly bills in full each month. Money issues are a top source of relationship instability, so both your sense of physical and emotional security can be at risk when debt is looming over your life.
Stress, especially chronic stress that becomes part of your life for years, has a deeply powerful effect on your mind and body. You put more “wear and tear” on your cardiovascular system. Constant stress makes it easier to develop mental health problems, and you’re even putting extra stress on parts of your brain that may be associated with Alzheimer’s.
Whether you develop a disease isn’t solely due to stress. People’s genes, other environmental factors, and health play their part, too. But think of stress as a switch that’s flipped on, making it that much easier to develop problems you’re genetically or otherwise more vulnerable to.
According to researchers in the United Kingdom, higher household debt is linked to poorer general health and lower life expectancy. This can happen for a few reasons.
For one thing, long-term debt means long-term stress, which as we know taxes your system. When your mental and physical health are constantly compromised, it’s harder to prevent other illnesses, and it can take longer to recover.
It’s also important to consider how debt affects the financial and logistical aspects of health. Debt not only causes stress, but it can make it more difficult to see a doctor. If you can’t afford insurance, or struggle to come up with the co-pay even if you are insured, you might put off visiting a doctor. Skipping doctors’ visits means going longer without treatment, or possibly missing early warning signs of a dangerous condition.
High blood pressure
One distinct physical symptom researchers have linked to debt is high blood pressure. When you feel stressed, your body responds with a complex series of changes that are known as the “fight or flight response.” Your nervous system activates, stress hormones release, and your heart rate and blood pressure go up.
This physical reaction might help you run away from an attacking animal, but unfortunately you can’t run away from debt. Dealing with debt for months may lead you to develop high blood pressure over time, which puts you at increased risk for more cardiovascular trouble, and even stroke.
While researchers have known for a while that your socio-economic status affects your health, a lot of studies in the past have focused on income. Now, researchers are learning that debt is an important factor to consider, no matter how high or low the number on your paycheck reads.
Multiple studies have found links between debt, stress, depression, and anxiety. Real talk: Does it come as news to anyone that massive debt could make you feel depressed? No, we didn’t think so.
It’s almost easy to brush right past the debt-depression connection, because it makes so much sense. It feels normal to be sad, overwhelmed, or numb in the face of financial misfortune. It would feel more strange to see someone who had a breezy, carefree attitude about thousands of dollars of debt.
The thing is, you don’t want to fall into a trap of thinking that people in debt “deserve” to be depressed. More than 75 percent of Americans are in debt right now. It wouldn’t be normal or healthy for three-quarters of the population to be depressed! Everyone needs to deal with money to get through life, and for most of us, that means dealing with debt, too. You need to find a way to handle finances and debt without it bringing down your mental health.
A study on more than 7,000 adults in England found that people in debt were twice as likely to think about suicide as debt-free folk. Difficulty making credit card payments and housing-related debt, and the hopelessness that came along with being in debt, were strongly tied to suicidal thoughts. In the U.S., 16 percent of suicides are related to financial problems.
Debt has the power to mean life and death for some people. If you’re having thoughts about suicide or harming yourself, please reach out for help. Talk to a loved one, your doctor or therapist, or a sympathetic listener available 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255.
Beat debt, be healthier
If getting out of debt was easy, you wouldn’t be reading this article. High interest rates make student loans and credit card debt a serious burden. Unexpected debts like medical expenses can happen to anyone. Add flatlining wages into the mix, and it can be hard to imagine living debt-free.
Don’t give up! Reclaiming your money and doing your best for your health is possible. Try these resources to get started:
Schedule a doctor's visit
You can’t fix problems if you don’t know about them. If you’ve noticed a change in your health, schedule an appointment to get treated.
See a counselor or call a therapy hotline
Everyone feels down sometimes, but feeling hopeless, depressed, or anxious enough to interfere with your life is a problem. You deserve help. Look for counselors who offer sessions on a sliding scale for payment, or call a free hotline if you can’t afford a therapy session.
Meet with a debt counselor or financial advisor
Professionals can help your financial health, too. Some nonprofit organizations, like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, can put you in touch with an advisor who can customize advice for your situation.
Make an action plan
Do you need to deal with collections or pay a high-interest debt first? Is there a way to reduce the burden of your student loan payments? Identify the most critical financial issue and make a plan, either on your own or with a professional to guide you.
Get on top of your finances, and your wallet isn’t the only thing that will thank you. Your health and relationships can benefit from debt-free living, too, so take your first step today.