Your Debt Is Killing You — Here's the Cure

by Emily Guy Birken on 10 February 2014 2 comments

In the modern age, many people may think that debt is merely an unpleasant fact of life. Yes, debt is stressful, but it's not like owing money is going to kill you, right?

Wrong.

According to some recent studies, debt affects far more than just your finances. The stress of being in debt can cause mental and physical ailments that can shave years off your life. Here's what you need to know about the unanticipated health consequences of debt — and how to deal with them. (See also: Easy Ways to Banish Stress)

Debt and Mental Health

The link between money issues and stress is hardly controversial. It's natural that money — which is one of the most emotionally loaded issues we have to deal with on a daily basis — would be the source of stress and negative thoughts.

However, researchers at the University of Southampton have recently found that there may be a strong correlation between mental health issues, such as depression and neurosis, and being in debt. In particular, individuals who were carrying debt were more likely to suffer from psychological conditions than those who had no debt. (See also: Depressed? It Could Be Your Debt)

Of course, this research does not answer the chicken-or-egg question of whether people become depressed or anxious because they are carrying debt, or if people suffering from such disorders are more likely to incur debt. According to researcher Dr. Thomas Richardson, "It might be that debt leads to worse mental health due to the stress it causes. It may also be that those with mental health problems are more prone to debt because of other factors, such as erratic employment. Equally it might be that the relationship works both ways."

Retail Therapy Backfires

Anyone who has ever used retail therapy as a way of cheering themselves up can understand how debt and depression can become a vicious cycle. You might spend money as a way to self-medicate when depressed, and then receiving the credit card bill could be enough to stress you out, continuing the cycle of depression.

This may seem unfortunate, but not fatal — except that depression over debt can and does lead to suicide. The results of the Southampton study "suggest that those who die by suicide are more likely to be in debt." While the specific statistics on the relationship between debt-related depression and suicide are difficult to determine, the anecdotal evidence of how out-of-control debt is behind many tragic suicides is enough to make all of us treat our credit cards with respect.

Debt and Physical Health

Of course, psychological issues have a nasty habit of affecting your physical health, as well. In particular, high stress can have a negative effect on your blood pressure — even if you are otherwise young and healthy. (See also: 15 Small Habits to Live Longer)

According to a recent study out of Northwestern University, carrying a large debt load is associated with higher diastolic blood pressure. This study analyzed data from 8,400 young adults between the ages of 24 and 32, and it found that higher debt correlated with higher blood pressure.

Lead researcher Elizabeth Sweet, PhD, recognizes that these findings are somewhat surprising: "You wouldn't necessarily expect to see associations between debt and physical health in people who are so young. We need to be aware of this association and understand it better. Our study is just a first peek at how debt may impact physical health."

High diastolic blood pressure is associated with higher risk of hypertension and stroke — meaning your high credit card debt could be considered a medical problem. (See also: What to Do If You Get a Huge Medical Bill)

How to Protect Yourself From Debt

As with many health problems, it's certainly possible to simply live with high debt. But doing so can affect both your quality of life and its length. Rather than simply getting used to the stress, the depression, the anxiety, and the racing heart, it's far healthier for your mind and your body to do something about it.

Take Action — Any Action

In fact, just taking action can help to alleviate some of the symptoms of anxiety. That's because you are in effect changing your locus of control — your view of your ability to control events in your life. If you have an external locus of control, you may feel as though your debt is something that has happened to you, and something about which you can do nothing. (See also: Pay Off Debt With Delayed Spending Tricks)

But having an internal locus of control — which is associated with lower stress and more happiness — will allow you to feel as though you can beat your debt problem. And that feeling can be enough to help chase away both your mental and physical symptoms.

This is why people aged 51 to 64 tend to be particularly prone to depression over their debt, according to Lawrence Berger of the University of Wisconsin at Madison: "That group is the most likely to feel depressed about its debt, which isn't surprising. They are in the period of life when the time clock is running — when retirement is nearing, when health or age discrimination might make it difficult to get or keep a job."

In short, older individuals who are in debt have some very good reasons to have shifted to an external locus-of-control, even if they were more internally focused when they were younger.

Your Life Is in Your Hands

One good way to shift that locus of control is to break your debt down into manageable chunks. The "snowball method" coined by Dave Ramsey is an excellent way to turn around your feelings about your debt. In this method, you start by paying off the debt with the lowest balance. Once that is paid off, you will send that payment along with the minimum payment to your next lowest balance debt, and so on.

This makes great psychological sense, since it gives you a quicker feeling of accomplishment, which allows you to stay the course, and helps you to feel as if you are in control.

And feeling like you are in control is an incredible stress-reliever and mood-booster. Making the debt snowball something like the opposite of the debt-depression cycle.

Getting out of debt may not be a simple or quick process, but doing so will improve your life — and possibly even save it.

What steps have you taken to control your debt — and your health?

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Guest's picture

I love Ramsey's snowball method! This is well-written - thank you, I enjoyed it.

Now that tax season is upon us, a reminder that any refund your other readers might get should go to debt. Mine definitely will. :)

Guest's picture

Very good and important article. We often overlook the physicaly and mental affects of debt or other financial problems, but they exist. There's a reason why NYC banks and brokerage companies sealed their windows shut in the 1930s. From experience, we can attest to the levity we felt after our debt was paid off and this improved our health and mood. No doubt, the affects are similiar for most people.