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It’s no secret that most people feel lousy when they’re in financial trouble, and one of the biggest financial stressors seems to be debt. When you’re in debt, simple tasks like going to your mailbox, where you anticipate finding an avalanche of bills or overdue notices, can bring on stress. If you relate to this feeling, you aren’t alone. According to a Time article, there are a plethora of Americans in an excessive amount of debt. In fact, the Federal Reserve reported at the end of 2015 that, on average, an American between the ages of 18 and 64 has $4,717 in credit card debt.

So aside from being a burden on our wallets, what does this debt do to us?

“Financial issues are a common source of stress,” Dr. Jay Winner, director of the Stress Reduction Program for Sansum Clinic in Santa Barbara, California, said. “Additionally, when someone has extensive debt, there is a tendency to work excessive hours. This deviation from a healthy work-life balance leaves people less resilient to other stressors in their lives.”

How Debt Stress Impacts You

Chronic stress is linked to a wide variety of mental health ailments. Dr. Robert Williams, a psychiatrist in Phoenix, explained that long-term stress physically affects the brain through the well-known “fight or flight” mechanism, which occurs during times of perceived danger, such as those experienced when a threat to financial well-being occurs. Williams explained that when the deep limbic system, or primitive brain, is less active, there is generally a positive, more hopeful state of mind. When it is heated up, or overactive from too much stimulation in the form of perceived threats, negativity can take over.

In addition to an overactive limbic system, Williams said some people are born with a thin cerebral cortex. Emotional stability is a manifestation of the cerebral cortex, and studies suggest a relationship between depression and a thinning cerebral cortex. Dr. Williams said the combination of an overactive limbic system and a thinning cerebral cortex could lead to severe depression. Long-term stress from things like too much debt can cause anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, feelings of being overwhelmed, irritability or anger, sadness or depression, even thoughts of suicide.

Coping With Debt Stress

If you are stressed because of a financial situation, here are some suggestions from Dr. Winner that may help you cope.

  • Be mindful. Focus on doing one thing at a time with your full attention.
  • Learn a relaxation exercise. Learning to relax for a specified period of time will help you learn to relax through the day and reduce stress.
  • Do not resist the stress. There are not much in the way of health risks from short-term stress; so if you’re too stressed now, don’t stress about being stressed. Just learn some strategies so the stress does not become excessive in the long term.
  • Learn patience. This is important because the emotion most strongly associated with heart disease is anger and hostility.
  • Decrease the frustration of failure. Instead of thinking you are worthless when things go wrong, realize progress comes from learning from our mistakes. Ask, “What can I learn from this?”
  • Keep things in perspective. One way to keep things in perspective is to think of your health, family, friends etc.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat nutritiously and mindfully, enjoying the taste and aroma of your food. Get regular exercise.
  • Have some technology-free time. If you can spend some of that time out in nature, that’s all the better.
  • Talk with someone. If you’re overwhelmed by stress and basic techniques are not helping, discuss this with a physician or mental health professional.

Paying Off Your Debts

Getting out of debt is one sure-fire way to help reduce your stress levels. Of course this is easier said than done, so consider taking small steps toward this larger goal. To start, gather all the information about your debts, including who you owe what amounts to and any interest rates or fees that are applicable to each of the debts. From there, consider what options you have. Can you consolidate your debts? Move the debt to a balance transfer credit card and eliminate interest charges for a while? You may even decide to seek the advice of a professional debt counselor to help you find the right path.

Whatever you do, take a deep breath and keep moving forward. Not only will paying off these debts help your stress, but it will help improve your credit scores. (You can see how paying down your debts are affecting your credit by checking out two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)

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