Cash-Strapped Americans Endure More Than Stress

A new poll says rising debt can bring on physical ailments.

June 10, 2008 -- Cynthia Roberts is a single mom from Tawas City, Mich., who works several jobs to support her four children. But in this economy she counts a fifth responsibility: debt.

Roberts, 36, owes at least $70,000, and the burden of that debt has taken a toll on more than her finances. Her health has suffered drastically, she said, from the stress it brings.

"Emotionally, financially, mentally, I just had a nervous breakdown," she said.

Roberts watched her health deteriorate after she lost her job in 2003, and then her house to foreclosure.

"I had to go and have a heart monitor put on me," Roberts said. "I had to go and have a stress test. Counseling ... it took a toll on my whole life."

Like Cynthia Roberts, millions of Americans may suffer from mounting financial stress, according to experts. With the rising cost of basic necessities, like gas, food and housing, along with continuing job losses, stress can become a heavy weight.

Experts say the pressure can cause the body to break down.

"Our bodies respond as though we're in emergency," said Redford Williams, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University. "The adrenaline levels pour out, the blood pressure goes up, the immune system turns off.

"We're likely to get sick from a whole manner of things and get stressed out, where you're fearful and anxious," Williams said.

Because of rising debt, at least 10 million Americans say they have physical ailments, up 14 percent from 2004, according to a new health poll conducted by The Associated Press.

Specifically, among the people reporting high debt stress, 44 percent had migraine headaches and 27 percent had ulcers.

Twenty-three percent had severe depression and 29 percent reported experiencing severe anxiety.

Experts recommend getting medical attention if you have prolonged headaches, nagging injures, trouble sleeping or high blood pressure.

The link between financial troubles and psychological problems is well documented.

In the United States, a timeless example comes from the Great Depression, when the suicide rate jumped from 14 to 17 deaths per every 100,000 Americans. And today, with the threat of recession looming large, the physical price we pay may skyrocket as well.

"There's going to be, all over this country, a rise in the tide of distress that's going to be manifested," Williams said. "Mental health problems, suicide rates, heart disease, heart attacks."

Doctors say now, more than ever, is the time to reduce stress. They suggest exercising, eating a balanced diet and other methods, such as meditating and practicing one's faith, to help offset the potential physical effects of hard times.

As for Roberts, she has made adjustments in her life, now living in her parents' home and trying to get back on her feet. But it has been difficult. She offers this advice to fellow spenders:

"Take those credit cards and throw them away," Roberts said. "Your family is more important than plastic."