Student debt isn’t just annoying — it can impact your health in truly terrifying ways

If you’ve been paying to the news at all in the past 10 years (or have donned a cap and gown lately), you are likely well-aware that the student loan crisis in the United States continues to get worse every year. In fact, the statistics are staggering: Student loan debt clocks in at more than $1.48 trillion, owed by about 44 million borrowers in this country alone. Yes, that’s trillion with a T. It’s quite literally a massive problem.

Hard facts: Student loan debt keeps graduates not only just from pursuing their dreams, but from moving forward in their lives and taking big steps like buying a home or starting a family. And the numbers continue to rise — after student loan debts hit $1 trillion in 2014, it became painfully obvious that there’s no end in sight to the vicious cycle of students borrowing money to attend college, without the reasonable ability to pay it back.

And if you’ve ever been the one signing your name to paperwork to take loans for your education, you know how deceiving the entire process can be. After all, students become convinced that in order to achieve success, they must attend big-name colleges, whether or not they can actually afford the big-ticket tuition bill that comes with that education.

But did you know that student loan debt affects your mental health, too? Here’s how it happens and how you can handle it.

The inherent problem with student loans is that borrowers are often encouraged to take out huge loans with the promise that attending a “good” college will afford them a much higher earning power than if they choose a trade school, community college, or no higher education at all. But after the financial crisis in 2008 burst the bubble of a guaranteed high-paying job after graduation, many otherwise talented and hopeful graduates faced a new reality: Your diploma doesn’t guarantee much of anything.

And if you’re among the 44 million students who took out thousands of dollars of student loans to pay for your education, you’ve likely ended up with nothing next to that diploma edxcept uncertainty about your job prospects, loans with unthinkably high interest rates, and anxiety about your future.

And with each passing year, more and more graduates enter an already narrow workforce, so it’s truly no wonder why we’ve got a full-blown debt crisis on our hands. But while young people are forced to live with family, significant limit their spending, and derail their future plans, the impact becomes much further reaching than just financial. Borrowers become saddled with relentless anxiety, stress, and depression.

Last year, Student Loan Hero conducted a survey of more than 1,000 student loan borrowers to find out the psychological impacts of student loan debt, and the results are jaw-dropping.

They reported that “more than 61 percent of respondents said they fear their student loan debt worries are spiraling out of control — and more than 70 percent reported suffering from headaches due to the stress of it.”

Unfortunately, it seems the long-term effects on mental health for borrowers with student loan debt have not been studied at length yet, but the short-term effects are terrifying enough: Survey respondents reported suffering from insomnia, social isolation, and physical symptoms of anxiety. Nearly 72 percent reported headaches, with nearly 60 percent reporting muscle tension, and 50 percent reporting upset stomach. Other physical symptoms included rapid heartbeat, tremors, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

The fears surrounding their debts cause many respondents to withdraw socially, with “more than 74 percent of respondents reported shutting other people out of their lives often due to their student loan debt stress.” Borrowers may feel embarrassed to be out of college and still living with their parents, or working jobs that don’t line up with their desired career path. Or they may simply feel guilty for spending what little money they do have, as their loans continue to accrue interest.

It’s not really a secret how this kind of financial stress can impact a person’s everyday life. After all, if you’re not sleeping properly, you’re at much higher risk for deteriorating job performance, and you may not have the resources to seek care from a therapist or doctor who can help you cope with your anxiety in a healthy way. You may also feel unable to lean on people around you for support, for fear of their judgment or criticism.

And when it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s no surprise why people experience anxiety and depression. Denise Lopez, a registration and financial aid assistant at the University of Toronto told The Trauma and Mental Health Report in 2017, “The number of former students I see who are well into their thirties and forties and are still paying off their student loans is overwhelming. And many of them admit to being financially restricted from the things they really want to do like buy a car or property.”

Added pressure from family members only contributes to the guilt that borrowers can feel regarding their financial burdens. But how can anyone learn to cope with the struggle of mounting debts when so much around them feels unsteady and plagued with pressure?

Avoiding the reality of your debt is the worst thing you can do. Psychologist Dr. Susan Chanderbhan explained to Student Loan Hero:

"The more you avoid facing it, the bigger it gets. And in taking that first step to face it, we often find that it’s not as bad as we feared. Taking that first step helps us feel more in charge of our lives, more in control."

You should learn how to manage your finances in an informed, empowered way, because there’s no magic wand to wave — you have to pay them back.

So instead of wasting energy trying to hide from student debt, focus on taking care of yourself and your mental well-being. Clinical psychologist Dr. Nancy Irwin said: “Assertive, powerful people factor student loan debt into their overall life plan, feeling grateful that they were able to get an education and embark on a career that is meaningful. Give yourself a break, and remind yourself that you chose to go to school and get a higher education for some important reasons. Review them regularly and focus on your mission.” And as one last reminder, remember that you are absolutely not alone.

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