When I turned 40 years old I made the decision to transition from being a carpenter, mostly working for wages, to become a spec builder. I would take on the building responsibilities of the whole house, from foundation to rooftop. In order to finance my transition into what was essentially a significantly different business, I periodically ran up bills on any number of credit cards and then paid everything off once my projects were complete and cash flowed freely. I always felt uneasy about this way of operating, but my brain struggled to come up with any better creative financing options.
One day I opened a bill from Chase Bank and took a look at the interest rate. It was 29%! I assumed there was some kind of mistake. While reading the fine print I realized why it’s “fine” – it’s shameful and they don’t really want anyone to read it (much like the Terms of Service tech companies force us to agree to). I grew up in an era where there were actual laws on the books against such usury. To think that my government had somehow allowed usury to become legal when I wasn’t looking went against everything I believed to be right, true and just about America.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about usury:
Usury is the practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans intended to unfairly enrich the lender. A loan may be considered usurious because of excessive or abusive interest rates or other factors, but according to some dictionaries, simply charging any interest at all can be considered usury. Someone who charges usury can be called an usurer, but the more common term in English is loan shark. When Cato the Elder was asked what he thought of usury, he responded, “What do you think of murder.”
Over the years the nation’s banks have conspired with our elected representatives to – if not directly murder America’s citizenry – seriously compromise our health. Here’s how it happens.
Anxious Uneasy Feeling
While he probably didn’t understand the neurophysiology of stress, Cato clearly was able to trace the implications of being saddled with debt and being forced to pay interest on money borrowed. Many religions and spiritual organizations forbid the charging of interest on loans for very good reasons. Habitat for Humanity, for example, provides interest-free home mortgages to the families receiving their houses. I suspect it’s because spiritually realized beings, paying close attention to how interest-charging and paying feel in the body, could clearly see how it adversely impacted optimal health.
One of the primary ways debt damages the brain then, is through neuroception. Neuroception, remember, is “threat detection without awareness.” Because the debt we owe rarely shows up as a living, breathing, in-your-face entity, our brain can frequently fail to consciously register it. But, our body rarely fails to feel it, usually beneath the radar of awareness.
There are four elements that contribute to increased stress and they frequently only register somatically – in the body – rather than consciously in the brain: uncertainty, isolation, loss of control and conflict (see, The Four Horsemen of Neuro-Annihilation). Being saddled with debt of any kind, to the extent it raises our stress levels – for example, being uncertain about where the money’s going to come from to pay off our debt, or feeling all alone under the burden of excessive debt – adversely affects our brain. Stress hormones in large numbers have been shown over and over to contribute to an increase in the death of existing brain cells as well as a reduction in the creation of new cells (neurogenesis) and to a decrease in the connections our existing cells make with each other (synaptogenesis). A primary critical factor is not whether or not we feel stressed, but how long that stress continues unabated (like say, over the length of a non-dischargeable 30 year school loan!?). The simple fact that a loan can never be discharged in bankruptcy can add unconsciously to our stress load. And the more we’re stressed, we become even more vulnerable to the further effects of stress, as this research shows. But here’s an important aspect: as our brain gradually becomes neurally compromised, few warning signals initially show up. But they do down the road.
Another insidious aspect to the debt stress so many of us are carrying is how it can frog-in-hot-waterishly increase over time. While we’re fully employed and able to manage the monthly loan payments, the stress load rarely goes allostatic on us. But what if we get laid off from our job? Or what if we become disenchanted with the ethics of our company and want to quit? Now suddenly the debt load we’re carrying becomes significantly heavier.
A Mountain of School Loan Debt
Cultural critic Thomas Frank, writing recently in Salon, goes into great detail about how higher education has transformed into a punishing predator by adopting many of the worst practices of the banking industry and consumer capitalism. And this past September, social commentator John Oliver, on Last Week Tonight, did a very disturbing segment on school loan debt that not surprisingly went viral. Turns out that student debt has tripled in the last decade, resulting in 7 out of 10 college grads leaving school in serious hock. For the first time in history, school loans have surpassed consumer debt, up past one trillion dollars. To paraphrase the late Illinois senator Everett Dirksen, “A trillion here. A trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about … the seriously compromised health of our country’s citizens”… as a consequence of the stress load that debt places upon us.
I research and write this blog for one main reason: to help reduce suffering in the world. Understanding how my brain works and how it’s impacted by the people, places and things in my life has profoundly reduced my own day-to-day suffering. To my mind, understanding how debt adversely impacts neural functioning definitely falls under the category of suffering-reduction. Toward that end I have put together a 160 page book detailing the many different ways debt stress adversely impacts us, our brains and the people we love; but also what we might do to skillfully remedy it. You can support our work and research by purchasing a copy: Here’s the link: The Debt Stressed Brain (or you can simply fill out the form below).