Few things feel worse than not knowing when your next paycheck is coming. Economic insecurity has been shown to have a whole host of negative effects, including low self-esteem and impaired cognitive functioning. It turns out financial stress can also physically hurt, according to a paper published in February in Psychological Science.
Eileen Chou, a public policy professor at the University of Virginia, and her collaborators began by analyzing a data set of 33,720 U.S. households and found that those with higher levels of unemployment were more likely to purchase over-the-counter painkillers. Then, using a series of experiments, the team discovered that simply thinking about the prospect of financial insecurity was enough to increase pain. For example, people reported feeling almost double the amount of physical pain in their body after recalling a financially unstable time in their life as compared with those who thought about a secure period. In another experiment, university students who were primed to feel anxious about future employment prospects removed their hand from an ice bucket more quickly (showing less pain tolerance) than those who were not. The researchers also found that economic insecurity reduced people's sense of control, which, in turn, increased feelings of pain.
Chou and her colleagues suggest that because of this link between financial insecurity and decreased pain tolerance, the recent recession may have been a factor in fueling the prescription painkiller epidemic. Other experts are cautious about taking the findings that far. "I think the hypothesis [that financial stress causes pain] has a lot of merit, but it would be helpful to see additional rigorous evidence in a real-world environment," says Heather Schofield, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study. Given that stress in general is well known to increase feelings of pain, further research is needed to disentangle financial anxiety from other sources of pressure.