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How Money Stress Affects Your Health and Longevity

Constant money worries can take a toll on your health. Learn one simple step for healthier finances and longer life.

You likely know one major biology lesson about stress: your body has been designed—through a primal need to survive—to instantly evaluate a stressor and then decide which of two ways you’re going to engage with it. Do you take flight or stay and fight?

Evolutionarily and biologically, this instinctual choice makes a lot of sense. Way back, when we gathered around the campfire, grilling up the scrumptious catch of the day, you had to react when the tables were turned and some beast wanted to make you its catch of the day. So when a four-legged beast growled, grunted, stalked and then lunged forward for its in-the-wild appetizer, you had to decide whether you’d be better off hauling butt or kicking butt. Flight or fight.

Your body, even back then, knew what it needed to do. Your heart rate increased to pump blood through your body in order to fuel your muscles, and hormones surged to give you a rush of energy, strength and chutzpah to do whatever you needed to do in order to survive. Above all, there was no shame in either course of action—fight or flight—as long as the outcome remained the same. If you survived, so did the species.

But fairly recently something has happened in the whole arena of stress management. Something has changed. There’s a much greater emphasis on the flight part of the equation. That is, the common belief now is that you’ll feel better—and quiet some of the symptoms of stress—if you can just slow yourself down. Slow your heart rate, decrease your blood pressure, tell your hormones to take a time-out, get your brain clear of all thoughts. If you can do those things, you’ll decrease the chance that the harmful effects of stress will take their toll. So we take action by doing things that soften our stressors. In other words, we take flight.

Warm water in the tub, chilled wine in a glass, a walk in the woods, petting your pup, stretching your neck, child’s pose and downward dog … They may not seem like running away, but because they’re all escapist, they’re all forms of flight. Are they bad? No. Will they aid in temporary stress relief? Of course.

But here’s the thing. In the areas of health and wealth, flight won’t ensure your survival. The only thing that will: Fight.

Let us explain: the great threat to your health and wealth is your stressful response to an event. Plain and simple. High amounts of stress and stress situations are a major cause of bad things going on with your body; that is, if you perceive yourself being stressed, that leads to all kinds of bad health effects—ranging from overeating and obesity to high blood pressure to fatigue to anxiety to the shrinking of your brain’s memory center. Not surprisingly, being stressed also leads to the weaker immune systems that are the root of a whole host of other problems. What is one of the greatest causes of stress? Money. More specifically, money-related issues, as in not having enough, or losing a job, or having older parents to care for, or being too deep in debt. In fact, money makes people unhappy more than anything else in life—except being in the middle of a health crisis.

The bottom line: ain’t no bubble bath going to pay off your Visa.

This is why we believe you have to rethink your approach to stress management. While there are soul-soothing aspects to many forms of stress relief, you will never turn yourself right side up with good health or strong wealth if your approach is to take flight by doing things like burying your head in the sand about financial troubles or not going to the doctor because if you just ignore the pain in your abdomen it will eventually go away. Flight doesn’t erase the pain; it just delays it.

The answer, therefore, has to be a punch square between the eyes in the form of a strategy that helps you solve the underlying problem. Part of the reason (and here’s your biology lesson for the day) is this: stress is associated with shorter telomeres—a part of the chromosome that’s associated with aging. Shorter telomeres mean shorter lives. Conversely, ridding yourself of the stress that brings on those shorter telomeres could add years to the clock (or make the ones you have more pleasurable).

That could mean taking medication or making lifestyle changes. That could mean seeking help from a professional financial planner. That could mean creating a budget and making difficult choices about what you’re no longer going to spend money on.

Stress management, at least as the term is used in pop lingo, is not the same as life management. So if there’s one message that should come through, it’s this: avoidance will not make your situation any better. That said, there are a couple of notable exceptions. In volatile economic markets, it’s better to take flight and ignore them, waiting out the ups and downs, which will be better for you in the long run than trying to guess every little twist and turn, which will drive you bonkers. Similarly, getting on the scale daily, rather than watching trends and making adjustments accordingly, can be bad for your sense of well-being and level of stress.

We also don’t want to give the impression that all of traditional stress management is bunk. In fact, many people use meditation to help de-stress, and this can be very useful, mainly because it helps provide clarity of thought; decluttering your brain makes it easier to make smart decisions. (People use exercise to get similar results.) So in that way, meditation can be a vehicle to the ultimate destination: making smart and strategic decisions about the areas that are causing you the most stress.

If you’re getting by from paycheck to paycheck, if you have five figures of debt hanging over your head, if you don’t feel like you’ll ever have enough money to retire, now’s the time to take a realistic look at your finances, tap into the financial information available and fight your way out of it. In the end you’ll feel calmer and happier, your health and bank account will improve, and you can begin to live life without financial worries weighing you down.

Excerpted from the book Age-Proof: Living Longer Without Running Out of Money or Breaking a Hip by Jean Chatzky and Michael F. Roizen, MD. Copyright © 2017 by Jean Chatzky and Michael F. Roizen, MD. Reprinted by permission.

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