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Financial Stress Leads to PTSD, Study Says

Financial Stress Leads to PTSD, Study Says
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Is financial stress in your life out of control?  If so, then it’s important that you understand why the enormous anxiety you feel is taking toll on your emotions and your physical well-being. Initially diagnosed with a condition that affected combat veterans returning from the Vietnam War, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is now being attached to issues in personal finance.
A study conducted by the science team at Payoff has come up with some interesting results connecting financial stress to PTSD. The study finds that financial stress not only messes with your sleeping and eating habits but also impacts how you perform at your job.

Let’s take a closer look at the study’s findings and ways that you can help alleviate the effects of PTSD before it produces serious, long-term consequences to your health.


Financial stress and PTSD study results

The PTSD profile was stumbled upon by Payoff’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Galen Buckwalter when he was studying how personality relates to financial behaviors. As he was researching financial personality, he noted that those who were reporting to him on an emotional and psychological level and the symptoms seemed to be pointing toward PTSD.

Payoff’s study found that of the 2,011 respondents to their survey, 23 percent met the criteria for the PTSD-like condition, which Dr. Buckwalter identified as Acute Financial Stress (AFS). The news was even worse among Millennials (between ages 22 and 29), as 35 percent of respondents in that age bracket reported AFS symptoms related to personal finance.

Business Wire, in summarizing the study made the following observation: “People suffering from this condition have behavior grounded in denial and avoidance that isn’t rational or by choice, and results in an increased inability to plan, organize and manage one’s financial life, while simultaneously experiencing a full range of symptoms associated with PTSD.”

Symptoms of PTSD

There are certain criteria that need to be met for a person to be clinically diagnosed with PTSD. The three main criteria, according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America symptoms include:

• “Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
• Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
• Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.”

Buckwalter has defined Acute Financial Stress as “a pattern of intrusive thoughts, disordered feelings and avoidant behaviors related to your finances.” Those conditions manifest themselves in the following ways:

• Reliving Past Stressful Events
• Avoiding Reminders
• Sleeping Difficulty
• Feelings of Isolation
• Extreme Anxiety
• Guilt
• Hypervigilance
• Denial
• Emotional Numbing

Though there had been some consideration among mental health professionals that AFS was a sort of PTSD-lite, in that the complaints of study respondents were exaggerated, follow-up studies are validating that AFS is a legitimate form of PTSD. To get a solid grip on what the results of the study are telling us, let’s take an in-depth look at each of the PTSD criteria.


What is re-experiencing trauma?

Re-experiencing trauma is a constant reminder of past traumatic events. It manifests itself in several different ways, including:

• Experiencing frequent thoughts or memories about a particularly traumatic event
• Sometimes the trauma is re-experienced in recurrent nightmares
• Physical responses to reminders of a traumatic event, such as an increased heart rate or sudden sweating
• Experiencing feelings of extreme distress when reminded of the traumatic event
• Flashbacks, or experiencing the sensation that the traumatic event is replaying itself in the present

These are the symptoms as they relate directly to PTSD, but can easily be related to a particular event that put a person experiencing AFS in the initial, financial distress.

What are avoidance issues?

It is natural for a person who has experienced a traumatic event to avoid those things most closely related to the painful event. Avoidance becomes a problem when it is linked to the irrational assumptions that everything in one’s daily lives will lead to re-experiencing the trauma, it becomes a problem. What tends to follow on the heels of avoidance is the tendency to withdraw from everyone and everything.

It drives a person to the point of emotional numbing and within that are the related consequences of damaged relationships, guilt, shame, depression, and isolation. Specifically related to AFS, avoidance makes it difficult for a person to continue to perform in jobs where they are required to interact with others. Avoidance makes a person hesitant to take on new tasks or to make financial decisions. It also interferes with a person’s reasoning, planning, and organizing skills.

What is hypervigilance?

Is an exaggeration of behaviors that are meant to avoid repeating the original traumatic event or becoming extremely sensitive to possible threats. Hypervigilance is a type of anxiety disorder similar to paranoia or schizophrenia. In those states, threats are highly exaggerated and can even become delusional in nature.

Overreaction in social situations, angry denial of their odd behavior and sleeping disorders are typical. In AFS, sleeping disorders and hypervigilance over financial decisions that lead to blow ups concerning finances is common. Relationships with coworkers, friends and family members become strained because everyone is, in some way, considered a threat.

Each of these conditions has a tendency to multiply the effect of the other two or are a response to feelings and emotions as a result of the other two. In any case, AFS, just like PTSD, left untreated, can lead to a complete mental health breakdown.

How is PTSD treated?

PTSD is treated in a variety of ways. SSRI’s are often used as a pharmaceutical option and include benzodiazepines, like Valium, Xanax, and Ativan, which are commonly prescribed for short-term, initial relief of the symptoms associated with anxiety. Other pharmaceutical options include over the counter or prescription sleep aids. Because these medications can only be used safely for a short period, counseling is necessary to help overcome the effects of PTSD. Counseling approaches typically include:

• Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches behavioral techniques for relaxation and for restructuring the thinking patterns that lead to anxiety.
• Exposure therapy includes exposing the patient the memories and events associated with their trauma in a gradual and systematic way. The objective is to slowly reduce the patient’s response their traumatic events.
• EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an approach that presents various visual and tactile stimuli meant that help to release emotional experiences and remove the mental and emotional blockages that resulted because of their trauma.

All of these approaches require the guidance of a licensed counselor if they are to be successful in the treatment of this disorder.

Treatment of AFS

“When we consider today’s reality of stagnant incomes, limited savings and high amounts of credit card and other debt, along with frequent financial traumas such as defaults, evictions, and aggressive debt collection, these findings should trigger alarm bells for our society to address the challenges with debt millions are facing,” said Scott Saunders, founder and CEO of Payoff in reaction to the study.

“This research has added a level of urgency to the work we are doing at Payoff to help our Members get ahead financially by helping them understand the psychological effects of debt and what steps can be taken to reduce this stress.”

In response to the study’s results, Dr. Buckwalter has begun research to validate and scalable method to help people reduce the negative psychological effects of debt and financial stress. Early research indicates that 70 percent of the symptoms associated with AFS can be reduced through Dr. Buckwalter’s program, which is set to be released in late 2016.

Seeking professional help


Until Dr. Buckwalter’s specific program for AFS is released, the best option for someone suffering from PTSD or PTSD-like symptoms is to seek professional counseling. A licensed therapist can help patients avoid the negative effects that anxiety, depression, avoidance, insomnia, guilt, denial, hypervigilance and emotional numbing can have on one’s relationships and decision-making processes. In some cases, medication might be a short-term option for reaching a long-term goal.

Because AFS, like PTSD, has such devastating consequences about how a person functions, emotionally, physically and rationally, it isn’t something to be taken lightly. Continued behaviors involved in this disorder are destructive to a person’s personal and professional relationships.

In addition to causing harm to relationships, prolonged anxiety and lack of sleep have physical consequences as well. Personal finance might be an environmental stressor which can lead to major diseases including heart disease and cancer. If you’re suffering from the symptoms of AFS, don’t put off seeking help, the long-term damage is far too serious to risk.

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