By Charles Kouri
Americans are not just swimming in debt, they are drowning in it. What’s worse is that this debt stress tsunami isn’t just hitting their financial wellbeing, it has the power to kill or disable them.
Late last year the amount of personal debt held by Americans hit $14 trillion—more than they held at the outset of the Great Recession in 2008. In personal terms, this means the average American holds almost $16,000 in debt with almost 40 percent of the population carrying credit card debt from one month to the next.
The burden is significant from a psychological and physical standpoint. The American Psychological Association notes that 72 percent of Americans report being stressed out about money and 22 percent claim to be extremely stressed.
Owing money—lots of money—generates feelings of fear, denial, stress, anxiety, depression, anger and frustration, all of which exacts a mental health price. This stress can also cause physical problems that include elevating blood pressure and cholesterol levels, triggering overeating and weight gain, undermining healthy sleep patterns and compromising a person’s immune system.
Dr. John Gathergood of the University of Nottingham in Britain underscored the price by reporting that those struggling with debt are more than twice as likely to experience mental health problems as those who are relatively debt free. Similar studies have also found debt stress sufferers experience higher rates of divorce and relationship problems, while also being eight times more likely to commit suicide than others.
The connection between debt and personal stress may not be surprising. What’s more perplexing is the difficulty in identifying and treating debt stress. There are several reasons. Not everyone, for example, experiences debt stress the same way. Some people may suffer enormous anxiety over $1,000 of credit card debt, while others may not be stressed until they owe hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Beyond this, the emotional byproducts of debt—anger, fear, shame, denial, etc.—often prevents someone from getting or even releasing they need help. These emotions and reactions can also trigger a devastating cycle because they make it more difficult to address the financial issues that created the overriding debt, which will likely deepen an individual’s debt level and increase their mental stress.
Relief is usually found in a two-part solution. The first part deals with addressing the emotional issues the debt generates so the sufferer can more effectively deal with their financial problems.
“Debt and stress often go hand-in-hand. When we’ve fallen behind on our payments and our creditors begin calling, it’s common to get overwhelmed with worry as we start wondering whether we’ll ever get our finances back on track,” the Credit Counseling Society warns.
The Society and others recommend taking a direct approach to the problem that starts with recognizing and admitting there is a problem.
“Your debt may have grown from being small and manageable into something that now feels like it’s totally out of your control, but now you need to accept that your debt is a problem.” explains Uswitch.com
Other necessary steps include:
- Talking about your debt
- Developing a plan to control spending and repay monies owed
- Securing financial counseling from reputable organizations such as ConsumerCredit.org
- Working to improve your physical wellbeing through exercise, better nutrition, improved sleep patterns and relaxation
- Understanding and avoiding patterns that created the initial debt issues
Ultimately, when debt stress ends the relief is palatable. “When people pay off debt, they’re going to say, ‘My stomach feels better, my heart feels better,’” psychologist Carole Stovall told Fox News recently.