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Coping With "Debt Stress Syndrome"

In debt and stressed out?

You're far from alone.

Americans are drowning in debt. It's a growing problem, made worse by a sagging economy.

The mounting pressure to pay bills is leading to an increase in debt-prompted, stress-related illness, experts and surveys say.

The phenomenon has even been given a name in medical circles: debt-stress syndrome.

On The Early Show Saturday, Dr. Alan Manevitz, a clinical psychiatrist with New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, talked about the situation, and shared suggestions on how to cope:

Stress is very harmful to the body. Stress is an alarm system designed to get you to recognize a threat to your survival. When you're constantly worrying and stressing over your debt, you put your body in a constant state of alarm. The body responds by releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, resulting in increases in your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing pace, muscle tension, and inflammation, and dumping fuel (glucose, fats) into the bloodstream.

The cumulative effect is an increased risk of diseases ranging from diabetes to heart disease, and infections such as the common cold. Stress can also exacerbate pre-existing conditions, from chronic pain to cancer, by undermining the body's ability to repair or care for itself.

Other related health woes include muscle tension, upper and lower back pain, ulcers, digestive tract problems, migraines, insomnia, tension headaches, and severe anxiety.

This doesn't just happen to the poor, I or to any particular group.

There are three important things people should do to manage debt-related stress:


Admit the situation to yourself. Talk to your spouse or others you trust about it. There is a shame attached to being in debt, don't keep it a secret of shame. Sometimes, just discussing your problems and concerns can help you put them into perspective and give you insights into ways to deal with them.


When people are in debt and stressed out about it, they feel out of control. They make the debt catastrophic, and that only exacerbates the stress. They need to get ahead of the debt. If the credit card companies are calling, answer the phone, and arrange smaller payment plans. Look into bankruptcy. Instead of feeling helpless and that the debt owns you, turn it around -- be proactive and take control of the situation.


Seek help from a financial adviser. You can go to groups set up for people with debt. You can go to a therapist to cope with the shame and stress. Also, help yourself, eat right, exercise -- DON'T just obsess about the debt.

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