Does your head hurt as the bills pile up? Is your heart racing as your investments and job opportunities head south? In these tough economic times, financial stress can hurt not only your wallet but also your body and your mind. According to a poll from the Associated Press, the recession and consequential debt may be harming the health of up to 16 million Americans. Although a recession does not kill tens of thousands of people in a single catastrophic event, it harms health in the long run. The consequences of dealing with financial uncertainties can be devastating. Bankruptcies, foreclosures and other economic woes are boosting a higher than normal demand for mental-health services. Money woes can trigger insomnia, anxiety and depression, rob you of time to get exercise and cook healthy foods, and make it harder to afford regular medical care. Aside from turning off the TV and ignoring the press, it’s time to fight back and protect your greatest asset — your health.
So what can you do to protect your health during the recession? Plenty. And you can do it with just a little extra effort — and very little money.
Bail Out Your Stress Reaction
A certain amount of stress in life is normal and healthy. But many people have too much or handle it poorly, and that can make us sick. It can lead to alcohol and substance abuse, headaches, ulcers, high blood pressure and heart disease. It can also raise the risk of obesity, diabetes, infections, back pain, irritable bowel syndrome and many other conditions. The wild stock market ride, rising foreclosure rates, and increasing layoffs may give you a queasy feeling in your stomach, but it’s your heart that is really at increased risk during a recession, cardiologists say. “We may not think of chemicals when it comes to matters of the heart, but much of the way the heart responds to stress comes down to body chemistry”, explains Cam Patterson, MD, chief of the division of cardiology at the University of North Carolina Medical Center in Chapel Hill. And several different chemical molecules can harm us as a result of stress. Our bodies react to stress by producing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Especially for those already at risk for heart disease, the results of an outpouring of stress hormones can be deadly — or at least risky. They can build up over time, with effects that lead to damage of arterial walls and weakening plaque that may already be in a vessel. “They make the plaques more likely to explode,” Patterson says. “Stress, anxiety, and depression all affect heart health,” says Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, section head of preventive cardiology and rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. One major effect is accelerated atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Elevated blood pressure and heart rate are also side effects of stress.
To keep financial stress from making you sick, the American Psychological Association (APA) advises you to:
• Pause and not to panic. Stay aware of current events without succumbing to media hysteria. Avoid the tendency to overreact or to become passive. Remain calm and stay focused.
• Identify stressors and make a plan. Review your finances and note which areas are stressing you. List ways you can trim spending and better handle your money. Budget for health care, food, grooming and other expenses. Write up a financial plan and review it regularly. Contact creditors if you're having difficulty paying bills.
• Examine how you handle financial stress. Beware of negative behaviors such as smoking, drinking, gambling or fighting with your spouse. Get help if needed.
• View problems as opportunities. Realize that blowing your paycheck at the mall doesn’t bring happiness. Explore ways to simultaneously save money and boost physical and mental health such as walking, biking, cooking and having a family game or story night. Learn how healthy behaviors can save you money. If you're overweight, for example, losing as little as 10 percent of your body weight may save you thousands of dollars in medicals costs over your lifetime.
• Chill out. Learn relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, or meditation. Even sharing your experiences in support groups can help your health during the recession.
Health is Wealth
When the economy is stressed, you need your health more than ever. Resist the urge to react to stress with unhealthy behaviors such as overeating or excess drinking. Look for positive, inexpensive ways to manage stress, such as:
Exercise. I know you’ve heard that exercise is important, but during a recession, your health may depend on it. This is particularly true if you’ve been laid off. The tendency may be to pull the covers over your head and stay in bed -- or sit in front of the TV. Don’t. “Get your day started with a brisk walk”, says Winston Gandy, MD, co-director of cardiac ultrasound at Piedmont Heart Institute in Atlanta. Hazen recommends, “Do jumping jacks, take a milk crate and turn it upside down and step on it -- do something." Repeated studies have shown the benefits of exercise to heart health, with as much as a 15% decrease in mortality rates with relatively minor changes in one’s exercise routine. Running, walking and hiking are fun activities to get your heart pumping, while having fun with your friends. The bonus: it doesn't cost a dime!
Social support. Family and friends are more important than ever in tough economic times. Researchers have documented that isolation harms our health and social support improves it. Connect with family and friends. Check out support groups or online communities. Join neighborhood organizations.
Sleep is not just a time of rest, but of restoration,” says Charles Raison, MD, director of the Mind-Body Clinic in the department of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine. While we are sleeping, our bodies repair a lot of the damage that happens during the day. Although we need eight hours of sleep a night, many Americans live in a sleep-deprived state, and that’s not good for our health during the recession, or any other time. To sleep better, avoid doing stressful things before bedtime, such as paying bills, reading about your diminishing retirement fund, or having a tense conversation with your partner or family. If you have trouble sleeping on a regular basis, discuss this with your doctor.
Eat healthful foods and limit fatty, processed foods. Fresh vegetables, fruit, and lean meats should top your grocery list. Skip desserts and fried foods -- and save money, too. If you’ve been laid off, it’s especially important to watch your weight. “Suddenly people begin to see 5 pounds around their middle, and they don’t know where it came from,” Gandy says. Often, it comes from mindless nibbling and snacking throughout the day. That extra weight, particularly around the middle, can increase a person’s risk of heart disease. Before heading to the store, create lists and reduce your impulse buying with a grocery list, and stick to the list. When you are hungry, don't shop. Keep your attention on the perimeter of the store where the fresh produce and foods are. Processed and packaged foods are in the middle. Be a smart snacker and avoid junk foods that are low on nutrition and high in calories.
Above all, while the financial news is horrible, focus on the good things going on in your life. Even if you have lost a great deal in your retirement fund, maybe you still have your house. Maybe you still have a job. And with a little extra attention, you can still have your health.