What Causes Economic Insecurity to Morph Into Physical Pain?

Economic insecurity increases physical pain when your life feels out of control.

Posted Feb 24, 2016

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Unemployed men at Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen in Washington D.C. Circa. 1934-39.
Source: Everett Historical/Shutterstock

We live in an era of unprecedented income inequality and skyrocketing childhood poverty. To compound this problem, there is growing evidence that financial insecurity increases someone’s odds of poor psychological and physical well-being. What can we do individually and collectively to minimize the suffering caused by economic insecurity?

In this blog post, I'll offer some practical advice that tries to find the sweet spot between unrealistic idealism and hopeless realism. It's always going to be a tightrope walk between being a Pollyanna, who only wears rose-tinted glasses and pretends the glass is half-full when it's really not . . . or being a cynical pessimist who only sees the glass as half-empty. 

When it comes to the link between financial insecurity morphing into physical pain, the latest research suggests that "attitude is everything." One of the most valuable lessons I learned as an ultra-endurance athlete was how to use pragmatic optimism to focus on things that were in the locus of my control, and to let go of everything else. The latest research confirms, that when you're feeling economically insecure it's imperative to "control your controllables" so that your life doesn't seem completely out of control. That said, I know from first hand experience that this is easier said than done.

When you're financially desperate and don't have employment prospects, it can be practically impossible to stay positive or look on the bright side. Nonetheless, identifying the fact that feeling out of control in your life can cause economic strain to morph into physical pain is a first step towards making strides to stop this domino effect.

Economic Strain Can Exacerbate Physical Pain

A new study reports that feelings of economic insecurity can create a triple whammy by increasing an individual’s sensitivity to physical pain, reducing pain tolerance, and potentially leading to an abuse of painkillers. 

The February 2016 study, “Economic Insecurity Increases Physical Pain,” was published in the journal Psychological Science. The research was led by Eileen Chou, assistant professor of public policy at University of Virginia, along with colleagues Bidhan Parmar, an ethics professor at University of Virginia, and Adam Galinsky, professor of business, at Columbia University.

The multidisciplinary team designed the parameters of their research based on observations of two pervasive trends in our society: increasing economic insecurity and increasing complaints of physical pain. In a press release, Chou explains, "Overall, our findings reveal that it physically hurts to be economically insecure. Results from six studies establish that economic insecurity produces physical pain, reduces pain tolerance, and predicts over-the-counter painkiller consumption."

Millions of Americans may never recover from the "great recession" of 2007-2009. 
Source: ARENA Creative/Shutterstock

The past decade has seen a dramatic increase in economic insecurity, frequency of physical pain, and the use of both over-the-counter and prescription painkillers. This study identifies, for the first time, a causal connection between these growing trends. 

A meta-analysis by the researchers identified that the degree to which participants felt in control of their lives accounted for the association between feelings of economic insecurity and reports of physical pain. Previous studies have identified that many types of psychological and physical pain share similar neural mechanisms.

These results highlight the importance of distinguishing between subjective feelings of economic strain and an objective analysis of your actual financial insecurities. The researchers conclude, 

"Individual's subjective interpretation of their own economic security has crucial consequences above and beyond those of objective economic status. 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.”

This study breaks new ground by identifying the relationship between feelings of economic insecurity and the physical experience of pain. Hopefully, these findings will lead researchers, politicians, and policymakers to take action to reduce the odds of someone experiencing financial insecurity. These findings also serve as a call-to-action for each of us to be grateful for the economic resources we do have, and not dwell on wanting or needing more. 

Approximately Fifty Million Americans Are Living in Poverty

Have you ever been in a dire financial situation in which you felt paralyzing economic insecurity? Personally, I’ve been down and out twice in my life. The first time, I was young, felt in control, and the financial strain didn’t cause me any real turmoil. But, the second time I experienced economic insecurity, I was middle-aged and blindsided when my financial options dried up and my life spun wildly out of control.

In 2008, I experienced tremendous economic insecurity along with millions of Americans. This caused my body, mind, and brain to short circuit. My personal life experience of economic insecurity, feeling that my life was out of control, and physical pain supports the findings of the latest scientific research. 

Source: Pixsooz/Shutterstock

In 2014, the U.S. Census reported that the official poverty rate was 14.8%. There were 46.7 million Americans living in poverty. However, the poverty rate in 2014 for children under age 18 was 21.1%. This means that more than one in five American children are currently living in poverty. There is no way to sugar-coat this. Ending poverty should be a top priority for every American. The only way to really stop the pain and suffering of financial insecurity is to reduce socio-economic stratification. 

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A full-time minimum wage employee working forty hours a week earns $15,080 annually, before taxes. The current federal poverty level is $24,250 for a family of four. These hard, cold statistics are a brutal reminder that philosophizing about having a 'positive attitude' about being poor may be a disservice.

That said, until we've leveled the playing field, changes in mindset and attitude may be the only thing within the locus of your control and the realm of an individual's free will. One reason I'm writing this blog post is to inspire people to identify areas in life where they feel out of control and come up with ways to take charge of their destiny. In my opinion, being motivated to seize the day while simultaneously lowering expectations in a pragmatic way creates a winning formula for overcoming economic insecurity. 

The classic Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus was born a slave and grew up in poverty. He's famous for saying, “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants . . . There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” This ancient philosophy reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw this morning on my way to the gym, “If you want to feel rich, just count the things you have that money can't buy.”  

Over a hundred years ago, Louisa May Alcott reiterated many of the values of stoicism and noblesse oblige. In Little Women, Alcott wrote, “Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I'd rather see you poor men's wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”  

Is Spartan Living a Realistic Concept for Modern Times?

My grandfather was a typical, salt-of-the-earth New England Yankee. In my eyes, he embodied the values of classic Greek stoicism. He lived by the motto: “Want not. Need not.” Regardless of his financial wealth, he maintained a very simple life. He'd never drive a car that was ostentatious or in any way use material possessions to make a statement about wealth or status. I used my grandfather's lifestyle, mindset, and values as the foundation for a book idea titled Spartan Living Today, which was a proposal I tried unsuccessfully to peddle to publishers during the great recession of 2007-2009.

After graduating from college, I went through a period of purposefully living a hand-to-mouth 'Spartan' existence. I waited tables to make ends meet and to keep a roof over my head in the East Village of Manhattan. Scraping together change and frequent visits to the A&P CoinStar machine at Union Square (to turn coins into dollar bills to buy some food) was a weekly occurrence amongst me and my “starving artist” friends. Being poor was a part of our gestalt and the water we swam in. We all just barely squeezed by, but we were in it together and it was actually fun. 

In my 20s, the economic insecurity I felt wasn't psychologically stressful because I felt totally in control and was fearless. Also, it was a time of innocence and most of us were privileged enough to romanticize living hand to mouth. Although being poor led to small bouts of psychological stress, the economic insecurity didn’t evolve into physical pain. Obviously, this is a much different scenario than the real economic insecurity that millions of Americans (and people around the world) experience daily.

Source: Sangoiri/Shutterstock

In a "reality-check" twist of fate, being unable to sell a book based on the values of 'Spartan living' sent me into a psychological and financial tailspin. I didn't have enough money to eat or pay my rent, but I was too proud to ask for help. Based on this experience, I learned that it’s easy to romanticize living a ‘spartan life’ and 'self-reliance' when you feel some sense of economic security, but when the rug is pulled out from under you—and there appears to be no safety net—it can cause your body and mind to short circuit. I’ve been there myself, and it sucks.

Over the years, I’ve had the eye-opening opportunity to see the underbelly of Wall Street sharks up close and personal. All too often, the nouveau riche types I've met, have a snobby attitude fueled by their new-found über wealth. Unfortunately, when it comes to the working class or anyone blue collar, there can be a distinctive “let them eat cake” attitude among many members of the one percent. 

As a society, it seems we need a readjustment along the lines of what Arianna Huffington suggests in the Third Metric. Unless the majority of us strive to find ways to be content and satisfied with less material wealth, there will continue to be economic disparity combined with an epidemic of malcontent and dissatisfaction that will eat away at our bodies and souls.

The aspiration and ability of a few people to become ridiculously wealthy means there simply isn't enough to go around. I'm not necessarily a socialist, but I do believe that the Wall Street types need to take it down a thousand and stop letting greed snuff out their empathy, kindheartedness, and generosity towards others who are less fortunate. 

Money May Not Buy Happiness, But Being Poor Can Harm Your Well-Being

In a 2010 study, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-Being,” psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton from Princeton University found that self-reported levels of well-being increased steadily up to earning a salary of about $75,000 a year but then leveled off. 

Although having a high income can buy life satisfaction, they concluded that money can't necessarily buy happiness. On the flip side, the double whammy of having a low income was often associated with both low life evaluation and low emotional well-being. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that low income exacerbates the emotional pain associated with things such as divorce, poor health, and being alone.

I just did some quick math to calculate how many hours it would take for a minimum wage worker to earn $75,000. The answer is 10,334 hours. Seeing as there are only 8,760 hours per year, someone earning minimum wage who was on the clock for every minute of every year could never earn $75,000. In fact, if someone on minimum wage were physically able to work 24/7, he or she would earn $63,510 annually. 

Herein lies the conundrum for millions of Americans who try to play by the rules and pursue the American Dream. All too often, people find themselves down and out, unable to make ends meet, or saddled with student debt they’ll never be able to pay back. How can you feel like you're in control of your life when you're stuck in a powerless financial situation and feel trapped? Obviously, I don't have all the answers to this question. My objective is to put the latest statistics and scientific research on this problem in the spotlight with the hopes that together we can find solutions.

Why Are So Many Americans Addicted to Opiates and Overdosing on Heroin?

A November 2015 study by Anne Case, Ph.D., that again included economist Angus Deaton, Ph.D., of Princeton University, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The three causes of death that accounted for the change in mortality among non-Hispanic whites were suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.

Deaths from heroin have quadrupled since 2013.
Source: chairoij/Shutterstock

The study also cited that deaths from heroin have quadrupled since 2013 claiming 8,260 lives. Some experts at the CDC are calling this the worst drug overdose epidemic in U.S. history. According to a study by the CDC drug overdose statistics, among those who died from prescription opiate overdose between 1999 and 2013 most were ages 25 to 54. This age group also had the highest overdose rates compared to other age groups.

The opiate overdose rate for adults aged 55–64 increased more than seven-fold during this same time period. Drug overdoses now cause more deaths than car crashes, with opioids like OxyContin and other pain medications killing 44 people a day. Again, looking at this research through the lens of the new study on economic insecurity and physical pain, it appears there is a correlation between people feeling that their lives are out of control, economic insecurity, and the abuse of painkillers. 

Conclusion: Expect Nothing. Live Frugally On Surprise.

What can we do as individuals and a society to curtail the growing problems of economic insecurity, physical pain, and the abuse of painkillers? Obviously, it's going to take a comprehensive multi-pronged approach of sweeping proportions to turn this juggernaut around. 

Hopefully, the latest scientific research on the health risks associated with financial stress will serve as a call-to-action for public health advocates and policymakers to mobilize and identify various ways to reduce the ever-widening gap between the haves and have nots. In addition to the obvious solutions of narrowing the income gap and increasing minimum wage, it appears that there is a subjective role linked to feelings of economic insecurity and an increase of physical pain. 

The feeling of being out of control in regards to your financial destiny seems to be the most detrimental aspect of being unemployment, or underemployed. Therefore, whatever you can do to be proactive about increasing your income, lowering your expenses, and feeling less stressed about your finances may reduce your risk of having economic insecurity morph into physical pain, and subsequent abuse of painkillers.

In closing, I offer a poem by Alice Walker that might be of some help if you're feeling financially insecure and unable to turn your explanatory style around. Over the years, I've recited this poem whenever the American Dream wasn't panning out the way I thought it would and 'wild disappointment' dominated my thoughts. The poem sums up the essence of pragmatic optimism to provide comfort in the face of both economic insecurity and psychological malcontent.

Expect Nothing. Live Frugally on Surprise" by Alice Walker 

Expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.
become a stranger
To need of pity
Or, if compassion be freely
Given out
Take only enough
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.

Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Or greater than a star;
Tame wild disappointment
With caress unmoved and cold
Make of it a parka
For your soul.

Discover the reason why
So tiny human midget
Exists at all
So scared unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.  —Alice Walker

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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