As of last month, the average American’s credit card debt totaled $15,263; mortgage debt averaged $147,591; and student loan debt hit $31,646. And many households have all three.
No wonder you’re more stressed than you were 10 years ago.
Twenty percent of you now say you live with extreme stress daily, and we think the real number is even higher than that.
It’s not news that financial woes fuel tension, sleepless nights, relationship problems and depression. But a new report reveals that debt is also linked with higher diastolic blood pressure – that’s the second number in a blood pressure reading that tells you the pressure level between beats. We say you should aim for 115/75.
High diastolic pressure signals high-blood-pressure problems. And that can double your risk for heart attack and weaker recovery post-heart-attack; triple the odds for digestive problems and ulcers; and lead to a 10 times higher chance for headaches and migraines.
But you don’t have to inflict physical damage on your body because you are under financial pressure – and that’s great news, since stress-related health problems can cost a lot in lost work time, doctor and hospital expenses and family happiness. And a great bonus: When you have less stress, you think more clearly, and solutions to many of life’s challenges, including financial ones, become more controllable.
Consider these steps:
1. Stay social: Counteract stress by investing in your social network, and we don’t mean digitally. Study after study shows that people with strong relationships deal better with stress, reduce their risk of heart disease, cancer, accidents and all causes of death. So make an effort to stay in touch with friends and family, organize get-togethers, plan day trips. And reach out to help others through volunteering – acts of generosity and altruism are good for the heart and the spirit, not to mention the brain.
2. Make your health a priority: Financial stress doubles the chances that you’ll skimp on prescription drugs, medical tests and doctor visits. Ask your doc about lower-cost ways to get the care you need. You’ll find free tips at sharecare.com and doctoroz.com to keep your health and weight on track.
3. Face facts: Avoiding tough situations or difficult decisions doesn’t make the stress they evoke go away – it amplifies it in the long run. So, identify at least one debt you’d like to stop stressing about, grab the most recent bill and do a little math. Determine what you can do to chip away at it more effectively. And then tell one friend or family member what you’re doing. In one study, half of the people who tried this approach were able to stay on track.
4. Eat out less often: It’s great for your budget, your waistline and your health. And clearly, if you stay healthy you’ll have less stress, because you won’t be worrying about illnesses and you’ll feel more in control of your future – a feeling that chronic debt can steal from you.
5. Don’t use shopping as stress relief: Lots of you may hit the mall or outlets when you’re feeling down. But that’s a recipe for overspending. Dancing with your honey and friends in your living room to your favorite oldies is free. Reading aloud with your spouse or kids is fun and relaxing, and how about a family board-game night?
6. Adopt stress-busting habits: Financial stress increases your risk for obesity by 20 percent and ups the odds for smoking and excess alcohol use. Dodge those risks with exercise, meditation, breathing exercises, hobbies and making time for fun. They all can reduce levels of stress hormones and dial back anxiety. If your thoughts keep circling around to your bank balance or the latest unopened bills, try writing down your worries. Sometimes they don’t look so large when you get them down on paper, where you can evaluate them and make an action plan.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Dr. Mike Roizen is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic.