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The Hidden Cost of Debt: How Your Finances Impact Your Health

Every month, it seems the balance keeps climbing on your credit cards. You used your home equity line to repair your roof, and rising interest rates have doubled your payments. You haven’t met your deductible on your health insurance, and those bills for your family’s appointments and prescriptions keep coming in. 

No matter what your financial situation is, you may find yourself facing some type of debt. And debt isn’t just a financial strain. The weight of owing money can take a toll on your health, too. 

Francia Day, PsyD, a psychologist with Banner Health, explained more about how debt can affect your health and what you can do to minimize its effects, even if you can’t get all of your balances down to zero anytime soon.

How those dollars you owe affect your physical health

You might think debt and financial problems only affect your mental health. But they can harm your physical health, too:

  • Stress: Worrying about money can lead to chronic stress. While once-in-a-while stress, like meeting a deadline or speaking in public, might not be so bad, long-lasting stress can harm your body. 
    “Debt stress, just like other stressors, can cause an increase in the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline,” Dr. Day said. Over time, high levels of stress hormones can lead to higher blood pressure, headaches, fatigue, a higher risk of heart disease and a weaker immune system. “Sometimes what we attribute to physical illness could be largely related to the stress we are experiencing,” she said.
  • Sleep: When you’re thinking about how you’re going to pay your bills or get out from under your debt, your mind can’t unwind easily. You may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. You need solid sleep to repair your body, cement your memories and regulate your hormones. When you don’t sleep well, you may be sluggish and irritable and you may have trouble thinking.
  • Lifestyle changes: Money issues can push you toward cheaper, less nutritious eating choices like fast food and processed food. They can lead you to cancel your gym membership or give up the time you would spend exercising to try to earn more money. And you might skip health care appointments, screenings or medication refills because of the cost. Your health can suffer when you have to make lifestyle changes because of your debt. You may be at higher risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Plus, you might have higher medical bills and miss more work down the road.

Money problems and your mind

When debt is weighing on you, it can also cause poor mental health:

  • Anxiety or depression: Feeling that you can’t find your financial footing can cause worry, hopelessness, overwhelm or despair. And when you’re facing anxiety or depression, it can be tough to find the focus and energy you need to manage your money properly.
  • Well-being: When you’re constantly worried about money, it’s hard to enjoy life. Your dissatisfaction may spread to your career and personal life.
  • Strained relationships: You may not want to make plans with family and friends because you don’t want to spend money, so your relationships could suffer. If you share your finances with a partner, your money struggles can cause disagreements about how you manage your money and pay your bills. You may notice tension, resentment, communication barriers and issues with trust.
  • Unhealthy coping tools: You may turn to overeating, undereating or substance use or abuse as ways to cope.

“The stress and worry about our finances can affect our ability to function, take us away from what we really value and affect our ability to experience joy,” Dr. Day said.

You’re probably not going to win the lottery — what are your options?

Worrying about something does not always lead to solving a problem. But if the stress and worry are being caused by something you can change, figure out what those next steps are, what is a necessity and what is a want,” Dr. Day said. “Give yourself credit for even small changes, as this will give you the motivation to keep going and be more mindful of your spending.”

You need to find ways to control your debt and finances, so make sure you understand your financial situation. It’s a hard thing to do, but you can’t get out of a hole if you’re still digging it. 

Track your income and log all of your expenses. If you’re part of a couple or family with combined finances, discuss setting and meeting financial goals honestly. Create a budget and look for opportunities to increase your income or reduce your spending.

Most financial planners recommend paying off your highest-interest debt first. That’s good advice, but some people find it motivates them to pay off the debt with the lowest balance and get rid of one bill. Whenever you pay off a bill, add the amount you were paying to another one of your bills.

“Getting your debt under control is a good move for your health. Take the steps necessary to get a major stressor under control and you’ll thank yourself later,” Dr. Day said.

Find ways to reduce the strain your finances are placing on your health

You can’t wait until you’re debt-free to take care of your physical and mental health. Self-care is essential. “A coping tool can be just about any healthy activity that gives your mind a break from the worries and stress of debt,” Dr. Day said.

  • Look for low-cost ways to exercise, such as walking, jogging or home workouts.
  • Take advantage of community resources, such as libraries or parks, for activities and relaxation. 
  • Manage stress through meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing or relaxation exercises.
  • Do something that makes you happy, such as practicing a hobby, reading a book, going for a walk or playing with a pet.
  • Spend time with family and friends.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol, which could add to your problems.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Reframe your thoughts. “For example, instead of saying you can’t do something, say you’ll do your best,” Dr. Day said.
  • If your financial worries are overwhelming, connect with professional help to improve your mental well-being. “Talking to a mental health professional can help you find ways to stay solution-focused, motivated and identify ways to best care for yourself,” Dr. Day said.

The bottom line

The long-term stress of worrying about debt and struggling to manage your finances can be harmful to your physical and mental health. You’ll want to make a plan to get control of your debt and take steps to care for yourself and your health. That way, you can minimize the impact debt has on you.

If you’re struggling with how debt is affecting your health and your life, connect with a mental health provider who can help. Reach out to Banner Health for support.

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