Debt stress on the rise

As prices of food, fuel and general living increases faster and higher than ever before, many South Africans are feeling like their lives are spinning out of control.

The stress from the deepening debt many are floundering in has far-reaching effects on one's health as well, and unless precautions are taken, your health is likely to be severely affected.

Dr Fans Korb (psychiatrist and board member of the South African Anxiety and Depression Group) says that with the news full of rising inflation rates, petrol, oil and electricity prices, the number of people suffering from stress and stress-related illnesses is set to increase.

"It's still early days, but people are being bombarded with the rising cost of living and many are really starting to worry if they will be able to cope," he says.

Poll shows increase in debt ups health problems

According to an Associated Press-AOL Health poll released this week, when people are dealing with mountains of debt, they're much more likely to report health problems, and not just little stuff; this means ulcers, severe depression, even heart attacks.

One American man, Edward Driscoll, 38, blames his massive debt of $10 000 (about R79 000) for contributing to his ulcers and his wife, Kimberly's, panic attacks. "Just worrying, worrying, worrying, you know, where the next payment of this is going to come from," he says. These are sentiments many can relate to, in South Africa and across the world.

And while the survey showed that some people appear to be managing their debts, perhaps 10 million to 16 million in the US alone are "suffering terribly due to their debts, and their health is likely to be negatively impacted," said Paul J. Lavrakas, a research psychologist and AP consultant who analysed the results of the survey.

Those are people who reported high levels of debt stress and suffered from at least three stress-related illnesses, he said.

Vicious cycle of debt and stress

This finding is supported by medical research that has linked chronic stress to a wide range of ailments. And the current tough economic times and rising costs of living seem to be leading to increasing debt stress, 14 percent higher this year than in 2004, according to an index tied to the AP-AOL survey.

Among the people reporting high debt stress in the new poll:

  • 27 percent had ulcers or digestive tract problems, compared with 8 percent of those with low levels of debt stress.
  • 44 percent had migraines or other headaches, compared with 15 percent.
  • 29 percent suffered severe anxiety, compared with 4 percent.
  • 23 percent had severe depression, compared with 4 percent.
  • 6 percent reported heart attacks, double the rate for those with low debt stress.
  • More than half, 51 percent, had muscle tension, including pain in the lower back. That compared with 31 percent of those with low levels of debt stress.

The results of the survey also showed that people who reported high stress were much more likely to have trouble concentrating and sleeping and were more prone to getting upset for no good reason.

Index developed to measure stress

It isn't known for certain whether such stress is causing health problems, says Lavrakas, who while at Ohio State University in the late 1990s helped to develop an index to measure the extent to which people are stressed from financial debts.

But medical research suggests that most of the symptoms reported in this poll are indeed typical of chronic stress. The body reacts with a "fight-or-flight" response, releasing adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol.

This helps you react fast in an emergency, but if the body stays in this high gear too long, those chemicals can wreak physical havoc in numerous systems - everything from a rise in blood pressure and heart rate to problems with memory, mood, digestion, even the immune system.

Yet while stress doesn't cause stomach ulcers - most are caused by bacteria - stress can worsen the pain.

Regardless of the health implications, Americans are taking on more debt as tough economic times - slowing economic activity, job losses, soaring energy and food prices, slumping home values and record home foreclosures - strain many people's budgets.

Why are so many people in debt?

But then why do people let debt spiral out of control? A significant life crisis like a major health problem or the loss of a job drives many people into debt. Others build up bills "trying to keep up with the Joneses" - according to Patricia Drentea, associate professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who studies debt and stress.

For the middle class and beyond, it could be a push for a bigger house, an SUV, high-tech TVs, computers and other electronic gadgets, gym memberships, nicer clothes and restaurants. The list goes on and on.

The survey found that upwardly mobile, middle-class families were among those who had the most debt stress. Others were women, couples with small children, low-income working families. Those least likely to be stressed from debt include men, retirees, empty nesters and college graduates..

The AP-AOL Health poll involved telephone interviews with 1 002 adults from all US states except Alaska and Hawaii and was conducted from March 24 to April 3 by Abt SRBI Inc. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

How to combat stress
Fortunately, according to Korb, all is not lost and there are ways to prepare yourself physically and mentally to combat the onset of stress.

"It appears that some people are more resilient to stress and others are more prone to it. This is why we advise people to live a healthy lifestyle – no smoking, eating well, exercising, and so on. This can increase their resistance to stress," he said.

He also advocated a healthy balance between work and home life.

However, Korb said that if the stress of one's current situation becomes too much and it begins to adversely affect your health; then it is time to seek professional help.

Source: Sapa, Dr Frans Korb (psychiatrist and board member of the South African Anxiety and Depression Group)

For more information visit the South African Anxiety and Depression Group at

(, June 2008)


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