Under the Hood

Financial Stress Can Lower Pain Tolerance: How To Cope When Money Problems Hurt

Financial Pain
Stress from money troubles can lower a person's pain tolerance and lead to physical pain. Photo courtesy of Flickr, Jacob Edward

Being in debt and worrying about paying bills can lead to stress, but it may also cause some physical pain, according to a team of researchers who investigated the theory. Their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, reveal how financial burdens and stress may affect us.

"Overall, our findings reveal that it physically hurts to be economically insecure," said the study’s lead researcher Eileen Chou, a public policy professor at the University of Virginia, in a press release. "Results from six studies establish that economic insecurity produces physical pain, reduces pain tolerance, and predicts over-the-counter painkiller consumption."

Chou and her research team conducted the studies using data collected from 33,720 homes across the United States. In one study, they found that homes where both adults were unemployed spent roughly 20 percent more on painkillers compared to homes where only one adult was unemployed.

In another experiment, 100 participants were asked to fill out an online survey. At first, they were asked to think about a time in their life when they felt like they had total control and then asked to describe and think about that time for at least 90 seconds. Afterwards, participants were asked to report how much pain they were in at that exact moment directly after describing the scenario. Next, they were asked to repeat the prompt but instead to think back to a time when they had no control. When participants thought about a time they felt out of control, they reported feeling twice as much pain compared to when they were feeling in control.

In another study, researchers recruited 114 of the student participants to test their pain tolerance. Participants were asked to hold their hands in ice water for as long as possible in order to measure their baseline pain tolerance. Half of the students were then asked to read a statement about a secure job market, while the other half read a statement about entering into an insecure job market. Students were asked to describe how the average college student might feel about entering into each job market scenario. Those who were given the insecure scenario could not keep their hand in the ice water bucket as long as those given a more secure scenario, indicating a drop in their pain tolerance level. 

"By showing that physical pain has roots in economic insecurity and feelings of lack of control, the current findings offer hope for short-circuiting the downward spiral initiated by economic insecurity and producing a new, positive cycle of well-being and pain-free experience.”

Recognizing there’s a problem is the first step in addressing it. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2015 survey, money is the top cause of stress among Americans, with a total of 72 percent feeling stressed about their financial situation during some point in the last month.

Source: Chou EY, Parmar BL, and Galinsky AD. Economic Insecurity Increases Physical Pain. Psychological Science. 2016.

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