New Research Finds Financial Hardship Causes Actual Physical Pain

An unemployed California lumber mill worker and his family photographed in 1980.  Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS
An unemployed California lumber mill worker and his family photographed in 1980. Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS

Being broke is a real pain. No, it's a real pain. New research suggests that experiencing financial hardship can actually produce physical pain and can even decrease your body's pain tolerance.

The past decade has seen a widening income gap, the middle class shrinking, and financial desperation increasing worldwide. It has also seen a spike in the amount of money we spend on managing our pain: In 2008, Americans spent $635 billion treating physical pain — more than we spent on cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined. Noticing this trend, Eileen Chou , Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, considered her own experience.


“I first noticed the link between physical pain and financial security when I was on the job market, fresh out of graduate school,” Chou says via email. “I noticed that during that period of high uncertainty, I frequently experienced physical pain. Upon further research, my coauthors and I realized that economic insecurity and complaints of physical pain are both increasingly prevalent. We began to wonder if these two seemingly unrelated social trends might actually be linked.”

And it turns out, Chou wasn't alone. Examining the results of six different studies, her research team found the link between financial insecurity and physical pain was undeniable. Financial instability leads to a feeling of a lack of control, which can increase anxiety and stress, which in turn has real bodily ramifications.

One consumer study of 33,720 individuals from 2008 showed that households in the United States in which both adults were unemployed spent 20 percent more on over-the-counter painkillers than in households where there was at least one working adult.

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A new study finds that financial difficulty can produce measurable negative impacts on physical well-being.
Robert Maass/CORBIS

Another study showed that the simple act of remembering a period of economic stress and uncertainty caused more measurable physical pain than was reported by people who were asked to recall a time when they were economically comfortable.

The researchers even found that in a lab-based study, college students who were reminded of the uncertainty of the impending post-college job market showed a decreased tolerance for holding their hand in a bucket of ice water, compared to students who were prompted to think about a stable job market — that group responded no differently than normal in their ability to handle the ice water.

“[I was impressed with] the robustness of this effect,” says Chou. “The influence of economic insecurity on pain emerged regardless of how insecurity was operationalized (employment status, economic prospects at the individual or state level, recalling or anticipating insecurity), and when pain was assessed using four different medical pain inventories and two behavioral measures (pain tolerance and consumption of painkillers).”

By showing that physical pain is closely linked to feelings of uncertainty and lack of control, the hope is that this research can help people fend off the feelings of helplessness that come with economic hard times and stress that eventually lead to pain.

“Awareness of this phenomenon is the first step. We are now moving beyond documenting and validating the causal relationship to forming potential interventions. One possible direction might be to assuage people's sense of lack of control when experiencing economic insecurity,” says Chou.