7 ways credit card debt can be hazardous to your health

As a debt counselor, our expert has seen the physical toll of debt stress

Opening Credits columnist Eric Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for CreditCards.com.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Opening Credits,
I am writing a paper on credit card debt and the health issues people have in owing so much on these credit cards. What sort of effects does debt have? -- Aida

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Aida,
Great topic! However, it looks as though you are researching this subject for school, so I'm ethically prevented from obtaining empirical data for you. If you need studies proving that living in arrears can take a serious toll on the human body, you're going to have to seek those out on your own. Don't worry, they exist.

What I can provide you with, though, is mighty strong anecdotal experience. Since 1996, I've worked with thousands of people who are or have been deep in the hole. I can tell you with absolute certainty that debt does often lead to health problems. Here are the top seven that I see crop up over and over again:

  1. Insomnia. Visions of debt collectors banging on doors, negative bank statements, impending lawsuits, foreclosures and repossessions are enough to spook anyone out of a good night's sleep. Sometimes people are able to drift off, only to wake up in the middle of the night wracked with nightmares. Other times, just falling asleep is impossible. Functioning on a couple of hours of sleep is not easy for anyone; imagine how bad it is for those who deal with it for weeks, months or even years.
  2. Teeth grinding. Ever been so consumed with a problem that you inadvertently clamp your jaw shut? Many people do this. I once had a client come to me holding a piece of cloth over his mouth, and he kept it there during the entire appointment. When I asked what was wrong, he said he had ground his teeth so badly that they cracked and some fell out. Unable to afford dentistry, all he could do was hide the damage and suffer.
  3. Stomachaches. People often exhibit stress through stomach and intestines ailments. In fact, just opening a credit card bill or collection notice can trigger a nasty cramp. Abdominal complaints range from sour tummies requiring daily doses of antacids to debilitating ulcers needing surgery.
  4. Weight loss or gain. Some people deal with financial worries by overeating. This, of course, leads to unintended and unwanted pounds. On the flip side, others simply can't eat or hold food in because they are so anxious. They become frail and weak to the point of sickness.
  5. Headaches. When all you're thinking about is a way out of your financial mess, that focus can tax the brain pretty severely. Hence, throbbing gray matter -- or even migraines.
  6. Skin eruptions. I recall a woman who was under such extreme pressure that her lower lip was in a constant state of blistering. Yes, it was painful, but it was also embarrassing. Interestingly, when she finally got her liabilities under control, the cold sores abated. I've seen money troubles result in other epidermis delights, such as acne flare-ups.
  7. Substance abuse. Do financial problems cause addiction? No. But if you have a propensity to turn to drugs or alcohol in order to cope, there's a good chance you'll go down that path. Of course, leaning on any kind of substance can numb you from the reality of your circumstances, but it solves nothing -- and the physical toll it takes is often devastating.

Ultimately, everyone's physiology is different. In addition to the above, I've seen hair loss, weakened immune systems and overactive sweat glands. Just where and how debt troubles can affect the body varies tremendously. Therefore, it's very important for people who owe money to be acutely aware of any new aches and pains -- and to take action and contend with those concerns in healthy ways.

See related: Tips for dealing with debt collectors, 4 ways to cope with debt stress, What sort of credit card debt help is best for you?, Forget to pay your credit card bill? You could lose rewards points, How foreclosures impact credit

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Updated: 01-20-2018