Feature Archive

Debt Can Be Bad for Your Health

Worrying about debt may keep you up at night, but it can also affect your health, leading to stress-related illnesses.

ByJeanLawrence
WebMD Feature

Reviewed ByBrunildaNazario,MD

You've seen those commercials: "You're not just in debt, debt is all around you." Or how about the one with the Huns rampaging in to pillage with their murderous interest rates? Or the counselor who says: "Our clients are going off a cliff and at the bottom lies a bankruptcy"?

It's enough to keep you up nights.

In an Associated Press/IPSOS poll of 1,000 adults taken in early December, half of all Americans say they worry frequently about their debt, many of them saying they worry "most of the time." While economists say some people need to use credit in slow times, psychologists cite more reasons -- to punish spouses or stuff down their pain in brief bursts of consumption-related satisfaction.

The average household has 10 credit cards, and the average interest rate is 19%. To pay each card off at the minimum monthly payment alone would take decades.

To make matters worse, the cards have almost saturated the market and are now looking for more ways to make money, such as upping interest rates even when you have not paid late or making canceled accounts payable in full.

And on top of that, the all-important FICO score based on your handling of credit now governs not only the amount you pay for a mortgage, but whether you get a job or insurance, in some cases.

Oh, My Indebted Self

In other words, credit has become a huge headache. And this is only one stress-related illness debt can cause. Stress increases levels of the hormone cortisol, which can lead to or worsen heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer.

Tossing and turning at night with visions of screaming collectors dancing in your head can even make it hard for you to lose weight. In a study in the Dec. 7, 2004, issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers from the University of Chicago found that insufficient sleep cut levels of appetite-regulating hormone leptin. Leptin levels tell the brain when the body does or doesn't need more food. Low levels are associated with obesity. The upshot of sleep deprivation was weight gain.

And the pint of ice cream it takes to do the bills probably doesn't help, either.

"People definitely relate their health problems to their debt," Loral Langemeier, author of Guerilla Wealth and founder of Live Out Loud, a coaching firm in San Francisco, tells WebMD. "I hear about migraines, weight gain, digestive disorders."

"I hear a lot of mental symptoms," says Rudy Cavazos Jr., director of education and community relations of Money Management International in Houston, the largest nonprofit credit counseling firm in the United States and owner of Consumer Credit Counseling outlets in several states, recalling his days as a counselor.

"I used to get referrals from Employee Assistance Programs," he says. "The client would be sent from the workplace for being under stress, moody, angry, and unproductive."

So What Can a Person Do About Debt?

Cavazos and other professional credit counselors start with an opening session with the client. Some elements of that meeting:

  • First, you must be determined to resolve outstanding debt.

  • Bring in all your bills.

  • But debt is only part of it. The other side is to understand your spending, Cavazos says. "Many people don't even understand their paycheck stub. They may be paying too much withholding, for example."

  • Look at expenses. "Most people have no idea of what they are spending each month and how," he says. "I will say, 'When you got gas last time, how much was it?' and they will say, 'I don't know, $20 or $30.' It's too easy to just put that card in there and drive off." What do you spend on dry cleaning? If you have cable, are you also renting tapes and DVDs?

  • Then, and only then, look at the bills, and this includes medical bills, old hospital bills, student loans, everything. "People are afraid to know," Cavazos says. "You must conquer that.


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