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Financial debt can lead to chronic pain — but only if you let it

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Could your credit card balance lead to health problems? Researchers say yes. Here’s how to get ahead of your debt.
Written by Emily Shiffer
Updated on July 19, 2022

There are many reasons you might spend money you don’t have. Maybe it’s to pay for your kids’ back-to-school clothes or re-shingle the leaky roof on your house. Unfortunately, situations such as these can lead to debt.

According to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Americans held $860 billion in credit card debt in 2021.

A new study from the University of Missouri sheds light on how these kinds of financial obligations can hurt you. Researchers found that people who carry debt in their 30s are more likely to have chronic pain and joint stiffness later in life.

The study didn’t apply to all debt. It looked only at unsecured debt, which excludes the mortgage loan you may have on your house. Unsecured debt is not tied to assets. It includes credit card debt and payday loans. These debts tend to have higher interest rates, and they generally put you in a worse financial situation.

For the study, researchers looked at these debts among people ages 28 to 40. Then they measured their pain levels at age 50. People with high levels of debt were 76% more likely to experience pain that interfered with their daily activities.

Even people with lower amounts of debt were affected. Low- to mid-level debt was linked to 49% higher odds of pain interference. And that’s after the researchers filtered out other factors that could influence the score, such as whether the person exercised regularly or had health insurance.

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How debt affects your health

So how do finances affect your health? First, there’s the obvious: If you’re in debt, you may not want to spend extra money on your health. You might decide broccoli is too expensive or that a gym membership is an unnecessary luxury.

But even if you do eat healthy foods and get regular exercise, there is another way debt hurts your health. It happens through stress.

When you’re in debt, you may feel anxiety, dread or worry. That is especially true if the interest keeps racking up. You might also feel like you can’t afford to miss work or take time off. As stress accumulates, it can wreak havoc on your body.

“There is growing evidence that emotional and mental health can affect physical health and vice versa,” says Bruce Y. Lee, MD, MBA. He’s a professor of health policy management at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy. He’s also the executive director of PHICOR (Public Health Informatics, Computational, and Operations Research).

“For example, stress can tense your muscles, which over a period of time can lead to discomfort and potentially chronic pain or exacerbation of an existing condition,” he says. “Additionally, stress can affect levels of your hormones, such as increasing the amount of cortisol in your body, which can lead to more inflammation.”

Stress that doesn’t go away is called chronic stress. It never turns off. “A chronically activated stress response system begins to malfunction, resulting in a variety of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and physical health issues,” says Ling Lam, PhD. He’s a licensed psychotherapist, TEDx speaker and lecturer in counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in California.

According to Yale Medicine, chronic stress is linked to a host of health conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and addiction.

You can counteract the effects by using stress-fighting techniques, such as deep breathing and going for walks. But if you want to cut stress off at the source, you have to get at the underlying cause.

To help, here are 5 ways to address money stress.

Make the biggest budget cuts you can stomach

Once you realize that financial health and physical health go hand in hand, you might be more motivated to slash unnecessary expenses.

“Financial stress arises when your income can’t cover your costs,” says Dr. Lee. “So if you can’t increase your income, one way to reduce stress is to reduce your expenses.”

For people living below the poverty line, budget cuts may be out of the question. But if you can trim your expenses at all, do it. “When people take a closer look at their lifestyle, often they will find unnecessary expenses that are actually complicating their lives, causing additional stress,” says Dr. Lee.

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Tackle the biggest debt first

If you have multiple sources of debt, find the one with the highest interest rate. In many cases, that will be a credit card. Put all your extra money toward paying it down. For everything else, pay only the minimum amount.

According to America’s Debt Help Organization, this strategy is called a debt avalanche. And it can help you prioritize where your money goes. If you have a credit card that’s charging you 26%, you should pay that off before tackling your student loan debt, which may charge only 5% interest.

An alternative to a debt avalanche is a debt snowball. With this method, you ignore interest rates and instead pay down your smallest balance first. This approach can be motivating: It feels good to see a balance drop down to zero. And it allows you to more quickly reduce the number of bills showing up in your mailbox.

If that sounds appealing, maybe the debt snowball approach is right for you. But the avalanche will save you more in the long run, says America’s Debt Help Organization.

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Practice thought defusion

Thought defusion, also called cognitive defusion, is a practice you can use anytime stress begins to feel overwhelming. “Thought defusion helps increase your psychological distance from the thought and therefore reduces its emotional intensity,” says Lam.

Here are 3 ways to do it:

  • Imagine putting your stressful thought on a leaf. Now put the leaf into a river and visualize it floating away toward the ocean.
  • Imagine your stressful thought on a billboard while you sit comfortably on a train passing by. The billboard and the thought grow smaller and smaller as you continue down the track.
  • Imagine writing the thought in the sand on a beach. Now watch as ocean waves come to shore and wash it away.

According to the University of Sydney, thought defusion can help you see your life more objectively, and it may help you find solutions to tricky problems.

Maintain regular exercise/physical activity

You can’t outrun debt. But you may be able to outrun the stress that debt causes. Any exercise may help reduce stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, while increasing pain-reducing chemicals called endorphins, according to Harvard Medical School.

“Exercise can make your body, and in turn your mind, more resilient,” says Dr. Lee. “It can also take your mind off your worries, at least for a while.”

He adds that moving your body can also stimulate your creativity, which may help you home in on new solutions to your financial issues.

Identify cognitive distortions

A cognitive distortion is an irrational and often negative thought pattern that can make a situation feel worse than it actually is, says Lam. Examples include:

  • Catastrophizing, or assuming the worst
  • All-or-nothing thinking, where you believe anything short of your first choice is a failure
  • Jumping to conclusions, or making worst-case assumptions based on limited evidence

So while you’re examining your budget, examine your beliefs about your budget, too. Look at your earning potential, your physical strength and the support you have from your family. Look at your grit and determination. See how much you can put in your good-fortune column. Maybe you have more than you thought you did. (And check out how gratitude can make you healthier.)

Replacing cognitive distortions with healthier thought patterns won’t get you out of debt. But it might protect you from the effects of stress.

And when it comes to the money you spend on prescription medications, Optum Perks can help you save. Download our free mobile app to find coupons for up to 80% off.

Additional sources
U.S. debt by source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York
Debt and physical pain: SSM Population Health (2021). “Trajectories of unsecured debt and health at midlife
Chronic stress overview: Yale Medicine
Physical reaction to stress: American Psychological Association
Debt avalanche: America’s Debt Help Organization
Exercise and stress: Harvard Medical School
Cognitive defusion overview: University of Sydney
Exercising and creativity: Science Reports (2020). “Everyday bodily movement is associated with creativity independently from active positive affect: a Bayesian mediation analysis approach
Cognitive distortions: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association