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Being Broke May Actually Cause Physical Pain, Scientists Find

“It physically hurts to be economically insecure.”

| 2 min read

“It physically hurts to be economically insecure.”

According to new research published in the journal Psychological Science, people who don’t feel financially stable may actually experience more physical pain than people who feel secure with their finances.

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

Chou and co-researchers Bidhan Parmar of University of Virginia and Adam Galinsky of Columbia University hypothesized that economic insecurity and physical pain may be linked, and decided to explore the issue further.

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They looked at data from over 33,700 individuals and found that households with two unemployed adults spent 20 percent more on over-the-counter painkillers compared to households that had at least one working adult. Further, after looking at an online study of 187 participants, the researchers observed that two types of economic insecurity — unemployment and state-level insecurity — were correlated with the participants’ reported levels of pain measured by a four-item pain scale.

Another online study showed that study volunteers who recalled a time when they were financially unstable reported almost double the amount of physical pain as volunteers who looked back on an economically stable period. This finding held true even after the researchers accounted for other factors like age, employment status, and negative emotions.

Interestingly, economic insecurity may also be linked with pain tolerance, according to evidence from a lab-based study. Student participants were told to think about an uncertain job market after college and the researchers measured how long they could comfortably keep their hand in a bucket of ice water — a measure of pain tolerance. The participants who were thinking about economic insecurity showed a decrease in pain tolerance, while those who were prompted to think about entering a stable job market showed no change in pain tolerance.

Why the link between financial instability and physical pain? The researchers hypothesize that feelings of economic insecurity lead people to feel a lack of control over their lives, which in turn activates the psychological processes associated with anxiety, stress, and fear. The researchers say that these psychological processes have been shown to exhibit similar neural mechanisms to those of physical pain.

The researchers reported that the degree to which study participants felt in control of their lives helped explain the link between feeling financially unstable and reporting physical pain.

"Individuals' subjective interpretation of their own economic security has crucial consequences above and beyond those of objective economic status," the researchers wrote.

They hope that these studies will provide critical insights to researchers and policymakers about the relationship between psychological processes, social phenomena, and physical experiences.

"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," they conclude.

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