Why Financial Stress Could Leave You With Physical Pain

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Feeling stressed about money is a part of life for most of us, but that anxiety might be causing some unexpected physical effects. In fact, new research suggests that financial stress could turn into physical pain, partially because our pain tolerance goes down when we're economically insecure.

For the study, published online earlier this month in Psychological Science, researchers performed six experiments looking at the various aspects of the link between our level of economic insecurity and tolerance for physical pain. They started with a wide view of the issue: They matched up 2008 economic data for 33,720 households in the U.S. with their consumption of over-the-counter painkillers (e.g. ibuprofen).

Results showed that households with higher levels of unemployment tended to spend more on painkillers. For instance, households with two heads unemployed spent about 20% more on painkillers compared to those with just one head unemployed.

Then, in a later experiment, the researchers asked 100 people online to think about a time in which they felt like they had total control or a time in which they had no control. Participants had to think about and describe the incident for at least a minute and a half. Afterwards, they were asked how much pain they were in at that exact moment. Turns out, those who thought about a time when they felt out of control reported feeling more than double the level of pain of the in-control participants. Clearly, it doesn't take much to start seeing the effect.

In their last experiment, the researchers looked at the phenomenon in the lab. First, they asked 114 participants to hold their hands in ice water for as long as possible to get their baseline pain tolerance. Then, they had participants read a statement about the current job market designed to give them either a high or low level of insecurity. Participants were then asked to write in the third person about how the average college student might feel entering the job market. Finally, the participants went back to the ice buckets to see how their tolerance had changed. The results showed that those who had been manipulated to feel more insecure had a lower pain tolerance at the end of the experiment.

"Overall, the findings show that it physically hurts to be economically insecure," the study authors write.

We already know there's a huge link between prolonged stress — any kind of stress — and chronic pain. Indeed, that kind of pain is a common symptom of both depression and anxiety disorders. But these experiments show another way stress might very directly affect the way our bodies feel. And these days, anxieties over our finances are unfortunately common, especially among young people and the under- or unemployed.

So if your wallet's hurting, now is probably the time to see what you can do to make it — and you — feel better.
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