Why Financial Stress Is the Costliest for Your Health

A new study suggests that stressing over work and finances is particularly bad for your health. Here's how to avoid unhealthy dividends.

March 2, 2010

Stressing out over bills? Pay extra attention to your health.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Scientific evidence—not to mention anecdotal evidence from our own experience—has made it all too clear that stress can lead to health problems like weight gain and high blood pressure. A new study published in Diabetes Care suggests that some types of stress are more damaging than others, and can increase your risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of maladies including increased abdominal fat and insulin resistance. This syndrome can lead to other serious problems, most notably type 2 diabetes and heart disease.


THE DETAILS: Finnish researchers randomly selected 3,407 people between the ages of 18 and 78 from five cities in Finland. The participants all had physical exams to determine whether they had metabolic syndrome. After the physicals, study subjects filled out questionnaires asking how many times they experienced certain stressful life events within the past year.

The researchers divided the stressful events into five categories: financial (experiencing ongoing financial strain or under threat of bankruptcy or unemployment); work-related (starting a new job, feeling overworked, or having problems with coworkers); social (going through a divorce or coping with the death of a spouse or close friend); health (the participant, a family member, or child having a serious illness or injury); and housing-related (moving or losing a home).

It was found that the people who showed clinical signs of metabolic syndrome were more likely to have experienced a great deal of stress in their lives, especially financial, work, and health-related stress. Furthermore, financial and work stress in particular were significantly more likely to lead to certain individual conditions that make up metabolic syndrome—notably insulin resistance, high cholesterol, and obesity.

Read on to find out how to manage unhealthy stress levels.

WHAT IT MEANS: We know that stress in general can help trigger weight gain. Stressful events release the hormone cortisol, which sends a signal to your brain to store body fat and make you feel hungrier. But the authors of this study believe that stress may also cause your body to develop insulin resistance and increase abdominal obesity, two of the primary markers of metabolic syndrome. (They found this to be the case even after controlling for other stress-related behaviors such as smoking and alcohol consumption.) Finally, the Finnish researchers also believe that stress led to poor sleep and increased risk of depression, both of which can trigger metabolic syndrome.

During these difficult economic times, a lot of us are worried about our jobs and our finances. Here are some actions to take and adjustments to make that can help you cope:

• Be realistic about your finances. The first step in dealing with financial stress is figuring out where you stand. If you are truly hurting, a visit with a financial advisor may help. (Initial meetings are often free, and you can get a lot from one visit.) But for other people, financial worry is too often based on the perceived need to keep up with the Joneses. If you evaluate how you are doing by comparing yourself only to wealthier people, you will succeed in stressing yourself out, says Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a Rodale.com advisor. Whereas, if you realize that a lot of people are struggling right now and bear in mind that you’re doing the best you can, you may feel better and less stressed. And that can only help your health.

• Stay positive and in control at work. The authors of this study noted that financial and work stress often trigger defeatist or helpless feelings (no surprise there). But it’s important to keep things in perspective. "If you are chronically insecure, always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and feel powerless to change your situation, you will be under a lot of stress that could eventually have an effect on your health," says University of Michigan sociologist Sarah Burgard, PhD, who authored a study on the relationship between workplace stress and health. If workday stress starts creeping up on you, take a few minutes each day to practice mindfulness meditation, or learn how to nap at work. To some, a nap might seem like the ultimate in denial, but it isn’t. Sleep is a legitimate stress reducer. A quick power nap at home or at the office can mellow you out and make you more productive, which may help you feel more in control of your career.

• Incorporate healthy foods and exercise into each day. In a survey done last spring on the economy and health behaviors, the American Heart Association found that people were spending less on fresh produce and stopping their gym memberships to make ends meet. Both are understandable, but you have alternatives. Stick with seasonal produce to boost your immune system and save money at the grocery store, or check out a local farmer’s market for low-cost fresh eats. And consider walking every day, as walking comes with the lowest dropout rate of any form of exercise, according to the American Heart Association. You'll lower your risk of metabolic syndrome with every step.

For more ways to ease stress naturally, check out the remedy finder