Is Money Making You Sick?

7 minute read
Diane Harris is a journalist specializing in personal finance. She is the former editor-in-chief of Money magazine.

The stress of doing your taxes is likely behind you, but there are plenty of other money worries keeping people up at night. Half of homeowners and renters are struggling to afford their monthly housing payments. Credit card debt, at $1.1 trillion nationwide, is at an all-time high. And progress in taming inflation has flatlined lately, leaving the price of everything from eggs to Uber rides up dramatically from pre-pandemic levels.

It’s enough to make you sick. Literally.

That pain in your back or the throbbing of your head or the churn in your gut you feel when you pay your bills or check your credit card balance? Science confirms that it’s real, as a growing body of research documents the strong connection between financial anxiety and struggles with physical and mental health, particularly over the long term. Recent studies have linked money worries to anxiety and depression, pain and inflammation, heart disease, high blood pressure, headaches, insomnia, ulcers, back pain, arthritis, and asthma, among other ailments, as well as a higher risk of disability and early death.

In fact, a study published earlier this year by a team of British researchers suggests that among the serious life challenges that people often face—including divorce, disability, caregiving, illness, and bereavement—financial strain is the most detrimental to health. The results, based on an analysis of proteins and hormones in the blood of nearly 5,000 participants in a longitudinal survey of aging, found that people under financial strain had a nearly 60% greater risk of developing serious health problems, higher than any of the other stressors examined.

Read More: The Best Financial Advice for Young Adults

And it’s not only people with limited financial resources who are hurting. While lower income is strongly linked to greater health problems, how you feel about your money situation, regardless of your income or socioeconomic status, has a significant an impact on your health, too—and there’s plenty of worry to go around these days.

“Your socioeconomic status is only one piece of the puzzle,” says Carolyn McClanahan, a financial planner in Jacksonville, Fla., who began her career as an emergency-department doctor and still volunteers as a physician. “Financial stress cuts across every segment of society, and so do the health problems that come with it.”

The money problems that hurt most

“Being in debt has really affected my mental well-being. I worry on a daily basis. I don’t sleep at night.”

“I have sometimes had back pain, and even stomach problems, all due to being stressed over finances.”

“I feel like a failure for taking out money and not being able to pay it back on time. I am anxious and lose sleep over it.”

A sampling of responses in a new qualitative study of the link between health and finances by the Financial Health Network, a Chicago nonprofit, shows just how much people are hurting when it comes to their money. The participants ranged in age from 18 to over 65, and in annual income from less than $15,000 to more than $100,000, but they all shared one common trait: they were stressed about money and their health was suffering as a result.

“We’ve been hearing a lot about people having a hard time keeping up with rising prices or dealing with financial shocks and being overwhelmed by debt,” says Angela Fontes, the organization’s vice president of policy and research. “And the pandemic, which exacerbated mental health challenges for a lot of people, seems to have made everything worse.”

Research confirms how big a health threat being in debt is, especially when the loans are unsecured, like credit card or medical debt. Compared to people with little or no debt, for example, borrowers with chronic or high debt are more likely to suffer from inflammation and joint pain by age 50, and for that pain to interfere with work and other activities. People with medical debt are also three times more likely than others to grapple with mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Read More: How to Reset Your Thinking Around Spending Money

Even just thinking about financially stressful things can be harmful to your health, according to a study from the University of Virginia and Columbia University. Subjects were asked to contemplate different anxiety-provoking economic scenarios—for example, living in a state with high unemployment or wondering if their college degree would shield them from job loss. Researchers measured the participants’ pain levels before and after the exercise, either as self-reported or by seeing how long they could keep their hands in a bucket of ice-cold water. The subjects reported more pain and lower tolerance after thinking about a shaky financial future.

The researchers concluded: “It physically hurts to be economically insecure.”

A stressful diagnosis

Why are money worries so detrimental to health? Scientists say the body’s physiological response to stress is a key factor. 

Persistent stress and the feeling of being out of control trigger complex biological interactions, including the release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream, that interrupt normal body functioning. That, over time, can lead to inflammation, a weakened immune system, elevated blood pressure, and other long-term threats to good health.  

Behavioral responses to financial stress also play a role. When money is tight, for example, people often forgo visits to the doctor or medical treatment. Stress is also linked to unhealthy lifestyle behaviors such as exercising less, drinking more, and eating junk food.

Read More: Why We’re Spending So Much Money

As health declines, it may interfere with an individual’s ability to work, which can worsen financial problems. Lower-income people are also less likely to have health insurance, receive new drugs and technologies, and have ready access to primary and specialty care.

“The process goes both ways,” says McClanahan. “Poor finances lead to poor health, and poor health leads to poor finances.”

Steps that can ease the pain

Not everyone with financial challenges ends up anxious or ill. The best preventive medicine, experts say, is to address the money issues that do the most harm before they turn into a serious health threat. 

Here’s what they suggest.

Come up with a plan.

In debt? Identify a concrete step or two you can take to lessen the load.

If you’re overwhelmed by student loans, consider switching from a standard 10-year repayment schedule to an income-based plan that stretches payments over 20 to 25 years. That can substantially lower the amount you owe each month. If you have big medical bills, call your health care provider to arrange more manageable payments; do the same with credit-card issuers and see if they’ll lower your interest rate, too (few people ask, but those who do are often successful).

“Just doing one thing can help restore your sense of control, which can have huge health benefits,” Fontes says.

Strengthen your resiliency.

Financial shocks are a common trigger for money-related health issues, but few Americans have a big enough rainy-day fund to cover an unexpected $400 repair bill, let alone see them through a layoff or serious illness. One way to start saving: set up an automatic savings plan through your employer or bank, and have a small amount deducted and sent to a dedicated emergency account every time you get paid.

“Having a chunk of cash set aside is the single greatest stress reducer in the event of a financial mishap,” McClanhan says.

Do some yoga.

Or meditate or work out—whatever helps you de-stress—before sitting down to pay bills or tackle other financial tasks. Participants in the 2024 Financial Health Network study that examined the link between money and mental health mentioned exercising and mindfulness practices as techniques that helped them feel calmer, think more clearly, and address triggers of their financial stress.

Taking care of yourself will only help, Fontes says: “Feeling better mentally bleeds over to your finances and helps you attack money challenges more effectively.”

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