We Have to Face the Major Problem of Acute Financial Stress
Editor's Note: Long before the shocking election of Donald Trump, Galen Buckwalter and his colleagues were doing research and thinking hard about the emotional consequences of inequality, credit card debt and the range of financial stress points in people's lives. What they found seems so obvious, yet brilliant at the same time. Tens of millions of people have no savings and live paycheck to paycheck. How can we, as a society, pretend they are not physically and psychologically affected by this constant anxiety and vulnerability? This ends up costing our society hundreds of billions in health care and lost productivity and leads to higher addiction and suicide rates as well as increased domestic violence.
This is the first of three articles by Buckwalter to begin to raise public consciousness about the huge impact financial stress has on every aspect of physical and emotional life. Can we doubt that under President Trump, this situation will worsen?
—AlterNet Executive Editor, Don Hazen
The conclusion is clear: We are out of balance in a way that is endangering our health, and our relationship with money plays an outsized role in a nationwide health epidemic. As a research psychologist studying stress and mental, physical and emotional health, I’ve spent the last several years examining how we deal with money in an effort to deepen a scientific understanding of how it impacts our health. In the past, I’ve worked with people in varying states of stress, including Marines and humanitarian workers. Today, I study the presence and effects of what we are calling acute financial stress (AFS), essentially financial PTSD.
Our findings are multifold. We’ve found that financial stress is affecting our cognitive processes. It’s also damaging our bodies, leaving millions of Americans sick in ways we’re just beginning to understand. We know that stress disproportionately contributes to many causes of mortality nationwide, and stress over money is a significant, though widely ignored, contributor. Part of this puzzle is what we’re calling ‘financial personality.’ Basically, a majority of us don’t have the natural cognitive and organizational styles of those who excel at the kind of thinking that financial planning requires, leaving many of us exceptionally vulnerable to chronic stress.
In our research we decided to apply what we know about personality in general to how people demonstrate their individuality in their financial values, behaviors and attitudes and found a strong connection between our basic personalities and the ways we approach our finances. For example, much like some of us are more open, conscientious or neurotic in relationships, how we deal with money fits into the same patterns.
We asked study participants to respond to seemingly unrelated statements, including: “I do my taxes at the last minute,” “It’s not worth my time to plan for my financial future because I will never be able to make enough money,” “I have little idea of how much money I really have,” and “I do not allow my family to know my real financial picture.”
In the responses we received, we saw a profound problem emerge. Feelings of stress, failure, isolation and paralyzing fear kept surfacing in our analyses with alarming regularity. Examining this fear from every angle, we tried to ascertain what we were looking at and what the implications might be. Was this a temporary neurosis brought about by stress? Was it an existential fear stemming from financial concerns? Was it indicative of money altering our brains on a cognitive level that scientists hadn’t yet focused on?
The Emergence of PTSD in Financial Stress
The answer hit me one day: it’s a version of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The mental health community has officially recognized PTSD since 1980 as a serious mental condition. Stemming from a conversation about the financial pressure felt by someone who had lost everything after a divorce, I was reminded of the checklist of PTSD symptoms, which I spent several years focused on while working with Marines and humanitarian workers in an effort to prepare and protect them from post-traumatic stress disorder with resilience training before deployment.
Our studies led us to surprising findings: 23% of adults and 36% of millennials experience acute financial stress at levels that would qualify them for a diagnosis of PTSD. We knew people were feeling under the gun and often anxious about their futures, but this degree of clinical stress was more severe and pervasive than we imagined.
A traditional diagnosis of PTSD requires meeting a number of criteria. Often reliving the event through nightmares or flashbacks, the disorder brings on avoidance of any situation that reminds a person of the trauma. Additionally, one’s beliefs and feelings change, the world feels more threatening and relationships become difficult, leading to depression and isolation. Perhaps most important, PTSD results in hyperarousal, in which it’s chronically difficult for people to fully calm down, even in sleep. The mind and body are always prepared for trouble, leading to chronic stress that wears down all of the body’s systems, hastening the natural processes of aging the body and mind.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this constant state of hyperarousal results in a myriad of negative physical and medical outcomes. The connection between PTSD and coronary heart disease is notably strong. Links to increased addiction, likely motivated by the increase in anxiety and depression it causes, is also evident.
Fight the Powerlessness
Financial stress, specifically the stress associated with an inability to consistently pay all of one’s bills, appears to be strongly associated with the presence of an external locus of control. What this means is people often have a belief that powerful external events control our life choices, as opposed to a sense of self-control and being in the driver’s seat. This feeling of powerlessness present in many people who cannot meet their financial obligations serves as the impetus to drive them to abandon a sense of responsibility. Once responsibility is abandoned, it leads to a profound sense of powerlessness and stress.
Chronic stress like acute financial stress tends to preclude people from being able to make rational changes toward a healthier and more stable, less stressful way of life. With severe stress, comes further debilitating self-destructive ways of thinking including avoidance, denial and isolation. As the ability to manage stress spirals, it inevitably moves toward physical dysfunction and chronic disease.
Unfortunately, our current economic and commercial cultures rely on avoidance and denial. These popular coping mechanisms, in turn, overwhelm the brain and body’s needs for security and activate our stress responses system. Relatively recently, the profit-making equation changed even further by putting credit cards in almost everyone’s hands, ostensibly for consumer’s convenience. The result, of course, is ever increasing consumer debt. Through the black magic of compounding interest, this industry has created a new source of stress that seems to literally be breaking the back of middle-class America.
Culturally, we often perceive of financial difficulties as personal failure, leading people to remain in silent shame about what they’re going through, only compounding their problems with a sense of total powerlessness. Stress isolates people, which leads to weakened relationships, more isolation, depression and often, avoidance of the source of the problem. Avoidance is the enemy of overcoming, so changing this starts with being able to talk about it. I’ve found that by simply discussing their experiences, people with acute financial stress can find a sense of relief and realize they’re not crazy, that this is a real issue and above all, they are really not alone.
This is the starting point, when we begin to understand how many people around us are traumatized by the money in their lives and how it’s affecting everything from sleep to interpersonal relationships. A reinvention of our collective relationship with money must become a priority because without it, we’re only going to incur more debt and suffer the ever-increasing health consequences of this problem.
Coming up in the series: Part II: Financial Stress Is as American as Apple Pie; Part III: How to Rise Above AFS in Challenging Times.