We all know that money can cause a boatload of stress, especially during hard times, but a new study suggests that these financial woes may cause increased physical pain. In other words, your poor personal finances are literally hurting you.
The idea to search for this strange link came when researchers noticed that more people complained of physical pain during times of wide-spread economic insecurity. They hypothesised that the two trends were linked because economic stress can cause a person to feel out of control, and this could activate the psychological processes that regulate fear and anxiety.
Basically, we now perceive economic threats in the same way that we used to view predators, and our bodies react accordingly. These processes are also generally controlled by the same mechanisms that regulate pain tolerance, which would explain the link.
In order to test their hypothesis, a research team from the US conducted six different experiments over a number of years. The first indication that they were on the right track came in 2008, when they examined consumer data from 33,720 individuals. Out of this giant sample, they found that those who were unemployed spent 20 percent more money on over-the-counter painkillers than economically secure individuals.
These findings were then strengthened by another study, this time online, that examined 187 economically insecure individuals who reported more physical pain the more insecure they were.
Another online study had participants think back to a period of economic turmoil and a period of stability. In the end, the team found that the individuals reported almost double the amount of pain during the unstable periods.
One of the most definitive studies was conducted in the lab, where the researchers had students place their hands in ice water, then picture unstable and stable job markets for their future. In the end, students were able to deal with the ice water longer when thinking of stability, which the team says is an indication that economic stability can strengthen or weaken our tolerance of physical pain.
"Overall, our findings reveal that it physically hurts to be economically insecure," said lead researcher Eileen Chou from the University of Virginia. "Results from six studies establish that economic insecurity produces physical pain, reduces pain tolerance, and predicts over-the-counter painkiller consumption."
Though the news seems rather bleak for those who are suffering financially, and more research will need to be done to confirm a casual link between feelings of financial stress and pain tolerence, the researchers hope that by understanding how economics and physical pain influence one another, we'll be better equipped to treat it.
"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," the researchers conclude.
The results were published in Psychological Sciences.