washingtonpost.com
Debt and Stress

Kelly McGonigal
Psychologist and researcher at Stanford University
Tuesday, July 24, 2007 2:00 PM

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University, was online Tuesday, July 24 at 2 p.m. ET discuss the effects of debt on stress levels and overall health.

A transcript follows.

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Kelly McGonigal: Hi everyone,

Thanks for the great questions coming in. I'm going to dig right in.

Kelly

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Freising, Germany: How precisely does debt related stress reduce cardiovascular health?

I recall a period of self employment where I was constantly having to worry about paying the bills at the end of the month, and my most persistent memory during this phase was one of being unhappy and unable to enjoy other pleasures of life, even trivial ones such as a good meal.

Is it this unhappiness itself that degrades cardiovascular heath and increases blood pressure, or is it side effects such as increased food and alcohol consumption?

Kelly McGonigal: Great question. Let me answer it in a few parts. The stress of being in debt has both direct and indirect effects, like you observed with yourself. The experience of stress is directly harmful for your health, including cardiovascular health. Stress is an alarm system designed to get you to recognize a threat to your survival. The body responds by releasing stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline) and increasing heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, muscle tension, inflammation, dumping fuel (glucose, fats) into the bloodstream, etc. Every time you "feel" stress, your body is going through this. The cumulative effect is increased risk for diseases from diabetes to heart disease to infections like the common cold. Stress can also exacerbates any pre-existing conditions (from chronic pain to cancer) by undermining the body's ability to repair itself or care for itself.

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Seattle: How can stress lead to debt?

Kelly McGonigal: Part two of the previous question, as you mention, is the health consequences of how we choose to cope with stress. Some ways are healthier than others. Certainly most of us have some unhealthy coping strategies, whether it's overeating, abusing alcohol or other drugs, or yelling at your spouse (which has serious health consequences! A strong and supportive marriage is probably more protective of health than any diet or exercise.)

Which leads me to my answer to this question, how stress can lead to debt. Spending money is a common coping strategy. It feels good to buy something -- lots of use shopping as a soothing activity, or to create hope for the future, or build self-esteem. It doesn't take long for this to get out of hand: stress leading to debt.

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Falls Church, Va.: I stress out once a month whenever my mortgage is due. I think about ever losing my job and I don't have enough saved to get me through 6 months. Probably 2 months at least. I stress more of the fact that I pay more mortgage than my sister or brother who own larger homes and live in affordable cities. How can I overcome these fears and thoughts that other people are doing better than I am?

Kelly McGonigal: Hi Falls Church, Va.

You bring up a really interesting and common experience -- comparing ourselves to other people. This is actually a common cause of both stress and debt; the mentality of keeping up with others and the belief that others are doing better than you are financially.

This comparison mentality is extremely toxic and contributes to the health differences between the financially well-off and the financially struggling. I'll say more in a bit about how to handle the monthly stress, but I wanted to first highlight how much this comparison mentality contributes to the health-costs of debt.

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San Francisco: If I can't reduce my debt (right now), how can I reduce the stress of being in debt?

Kelly McGonigal: Here are some suggestions for reducing stress when reducing debt in any substantial way is just not possible:

1) You have to make the debt "known." If you try to stay fuzzy on the details (not really looking at bills, not knowing exactly how your mortgage with change when the five-year arm is up, etc.), your mind will keep debt at the top of its "threats to watch" list. This is what makes the stress of debt chronic. The less you know, the more you body-mind will try to solve the problem subconsciously by alerting you to the threat. So, even if you think you'd rather not know, get all the facts straight. Look at the numbers, write them down, talk to someone who can explain what will happen over time with loans, bills, etc.

2) Make it feel less uncontrollable. Put together a plan for paying off the debt, even if it's not ideal. Even if it takes a hundred times longer than you'd like. Even if you think you can't see the end of the road. Talk to an advisor, your spouse, or just get very clear with yourself about what you can manage and what you need to do at a minimum. Commit yourself to the minimum, and this can reduce the stress of feeling like the debt is spiraling out of control and taking you down with it.

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Alexandria, Va.: Does the stress of debt affect the health of men and women differently? What about when someone goes through bankruptcy? Is the stress relieved in some way, or does that event prolong it?

Kelly McGonigal: Bankruptcy is a really interesting example. For people who feel totally out of control and overwhelmed, it can be a real relief. The trick to recovering from bankruptcy (mentally, not necessarily financially) is to not become depressed by the stigma sometimes attached to bankruptcy. There's some research showing that the stigma, the sense of being "less than" others, and the belief that you failed are all harmful for not just emotional but physical health.

So, someone who has decided to declare bankruptcy needs to find a way to make it less socially isolating or stigmatizing -- perhaps by finding a support group or network of others going through it. Perhaps by reading stories of other people driven to bankruptcy, often through no fault of their own (healthcare costs is a common example).

It also helps to identify a few key steps you can take to prevent a "relapse" into massive debt, so that you don't feel like it is inevitable that you will "fail."

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San Francisco: Which is worse for your health, the stress of being in debt because you left a high-paying job or the stress of hating your job?

Kelly McGonigal: There are a few questions like this one coming in -- and I know the feeling behind it! I guess another form of the question is, should I keep a job I hate to avoid going in to debt?

I wish there were an easy answer. Both debt and a job you hate are toxic b/c they are chronic and related to our ability to (literally) survive and thrive. There is more research on job stress and health than debt and health, and the news isn't good.

However, there are ways to make a bad job better that don't involve quitting. When it comes down to it, you can "disidentify" from a job you hate before you quit. Stop defining yourself by the job, stop bringing home work, stop seeking to please the boss or your employees at all cost, stop letting the job have the best part of you. That can save you some time and stress while you look for another job.

You can also build social support networks at work, which greatly reduces the stress and health-risks of a job.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: I am having trouble paying my mortgage and just got a new job in June. I accepted this position because it was the first thing to come along and now have health insurance. I am not making enough money to pay my mortgage and car now and am afraid of losing everything. What would you suggest to keep me sane and healthy (I have a pre-existing condition)?

Kelly McGonigal: Hi Upper Marlboro,

One way to reduce the health impact of debt is to be honest and open with others about the debt you carry, finding social support from others who are also struggling in private. You may find that others will volunteer actual tangible support, but emotional support and "acceptance" support are great stress buffers.

Another key is to avoid catastrophizing. Something a lot of people do is repeatedly play out the worst-case scenarios in their minds. This is as bad for your health as the worst-case scenario. Your body doesn't know the difference between imagination and reality. If you are interested in preserving your health, you need to wait for the worst-case scenario to actually happen. Don't practice it! That can sound a bit flip, but if you're someone who does mentally rehearse, perhaps it makes sense.

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Michelle Singletary and Debt: Michelle, a columnist with The Post, often preaches about debt being evil. Now you have given her more ammunition to urge people to not get into debt!!!

Kelly McGonigal: Well, I haven't read Michelle's column, so I'm not sure what the argument is, but I must say I do have my own debt. It's what they call the "good kind" (a mortgage I can, for now, afford) and I've found that while it does create some stress to know that I owe that much money, the comfort of owning my home is enormously stress-relieving.) So I'll vote for debt not being evil.

Chronic stress, on the other hand...definitely evil.

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Indianapolis: How much stress is created by all the ads on TV and in the e-mail for debt relief? I find I'm sickened by not only the ads that want to sell me something but also by the ads that want to give me relief from all purchases made!

Kelly McGonigal: Those ads that seem like they're offering help only serve to remind us of the debt we're in. It's not an accident; the services only make money if you're stressed enough about debt to call. If the ads were designed to reassure you, you'd never call! Knowing that they are designed to be a little stress induction can help you ignore them.

In general, it's better to seek help with finances from a place of clarity, not stress. If you need help, do some homework, talk to people -- don't call after seeing an ad.

Now other kinds of ads have a whole other way of creating the debt-stress cycle. Ads that convince us that we aren't enough until we have a product use the same principle.

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Arlington, Va.: I have a decent job, which I like, but I feel I cannot save. As soon as I get a bit put aside, a pet gets sick or one of my two ailing parents needs my help (financially.) This does stress me out. I don't have enough set aside for even one month's living expenses. I do equate money with freedom, not just survival.

Kelly McGonigal: Debt can feel like a trap, and having savings does feel like freedom to many people (myself included). I like the reassurance of knowing that I can walk away from a situation, change my living circumstances, pursue an opportunity, or handle whatever comes up.

So can the above be true for you even without financial resources? Fixing finances isn't my expertise, "fixing" stress and emotions is -- so of course, it seems to me that it's a good idea to look for the freedom you do have. To be aware of the choices that are always available, even if it's the choice of how to view a difficult situation. To be aware of how some needs can be met without financial resources. To find out how to feel "freedom" in any moment. People who meditate describe that as one benefit of the practice.

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Washington, D.C.: We actually share a last name!

Anyway, while I was in school my debt was so overwhelming it kept me up at night. I ended up coping with it using the avoidance method which made things much worse. I didn't open mail for months at a time, I didn't answer my phone for fear of it being a debt collector.

Now I am completely out of debt and can see with a clear mind that the avoidance method created this cycle of increased debt (high interest rates) and more stress.

Although I knew that at the time I had a difficult time actually putting a plan into action due to depression over the debt. Any tips on stepping out of that depression (for people currently in that situation)?

Kelly McGonigal: Hello fellow McGonigal!

I would suggest two things:

1) Micro-steps.

2) Enlist someone to supportively keep you on track.

Micro-steps are the smallest thing you could possibly do to move in the right direction. It might be open one bill and put the bill (not looked at) on the counter. The next day, it's looking at it. Not having to know every step in the direction of recovering your finances.

2) Ask someone to check in on you, to help you find resources. Just being honest about being in debt. Most people are in debt. Many people are completely overwhelmed. If you find someone in your situation that you trust, maybe you can handle each other's microsteps! There's less fear and anxiety about opening someone else's bill.

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Washington, D.C.: Personally, I think the stress is almost the same if you have debt or if you have to hold onto a job to avoid debt, it's still how long can you hold out? I notice an icebreaker for Washingtonians is "how long have you been in town?" as in "why have you not fled yet?" I eat from stress or when really stressed, I don't eat, which is scary.

Kelly McGonigal: Maybe a good question is not only "How long can you hold out?" but "Is there any other way to do this?"

In other words, if both the debt and the job aren't going anywhere soon, maybe there's a way to do the whole process of being in debt or working the job differently that will allow you to "hold out" longer. How you think about it, how you recruit social support, etc.

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Washington, D.C.: I find that I get paralyzed by my debt ($60,000 in credit cards) which -- although I am servicing it and am not late on payments -- is compounded by the constant fear of being late, using more, and the legal but morally questionable tactics of the credit card companies. It's a huge impediment in my life that I'm not sure how to overcome.

Kelly McGonigal: Some ideas about the fear that accompanies being in debt, even when it is somewhat under control...

There are three types of stress:

1) loss/harm (something has already happened and it's over)

2) threat (something bad could happen and you don't have the resources to deal with it)

3) challenge (you're in a difficult situation but you can handle it and there are resources available to help you).

Guess which type of stress is the healthiest, and which is associated with the worst emotional and physical outcomes?

It sounds like you really are in situation 3 (and perhaps were in situation 1 at some point), but feel sometimes like you are in situation 2. The best advice I have is to try to focus on the third mindset -- to recognize the strength and skills it took to be managing the debt and not letting it endlessly spiral. And to look for external resources to support the strength and skill you've already shown.

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Kelly McGonigal: We're about out of time. Thanks to everyone who wrote in about their own situations -- whether or not my answers were of much use (and I hope they were), I know that hearing about others' experiences coping with stress and debt can help. Keep talking about it with people who are in the same situation and people who have specific financial expertise. Face things with an optimistic view on the "challenge" and your ability to handle whatever happens.

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