Stress & Poverty

The following is an excerpt from the zine “How Stress Affects the Body”, which I wrote in 2014.  The whole zine can be freely downloaded here.


If you have a group of people of the same sex, age, and ethnicity, and you want to predict who will live the longest, the single most useful fact to know is each person’s socioeconomic status. The people most vulnerable to chronic stress and its health risks are those trapped in poverty. It is important to note that, due to racism, certain ethnicities are much more likely to live in poverty. Being poor involves many psychological stressors, such as caring for a family without adequate resources, not having a job or juggling multiple jobs, worrying about getting to a job on time by public transportation or unreliable vehicles, struggling to pay rent, lack of good education, lack of safety, lack of control and predictability, and even lack of housing. People of lower socioeconomic status are also more likely to be separated from family members by incarceration, immigration, and deportation. Being poor also comes with many physical stressors, like manual labor and increased risk for work-related accidents, sleep deprivation from working two or three exhausting jobs, exposure to higher amounts of pollution in low income neighborhoods, poor health care, walking to and from work, the store, the laundromat with heavy bags in hand, living in close quarters with many other people and increased exposure to pathogens and tobacco smoke, inadequate heat in the winter, excess heat in the summer, limited access to healthy foods, etc, etc… One study of the working poor showed that they were less likely to take prescribed anti-hypertensive diuretic drugs (which lower blood pressure by urination) because they weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom at work as often as needed. There is a thin line between the physical and mental stressors of poverty. Being poor means that there are no resources in the reserve, so people in this situation can only react to the present crisis rather than plan for the future.

This constant stress exhausts a person’s mind and body. With chronically elevated glucocorticoids, they are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, depression, psychiatric disorders, poor immune systems, autoimmunity and more. The luxury of prevention rarely exists in poverty. People in this situation often don’t present for medical care until they are in crisis and at this point, it is more difficult to treat. When an impoverished person gets sick, they cannot afford for the world to slow down for them; the boss still expects their labor and the landlord still expects rent. Or if they are houseless, they are left to care for themselves while exposed to the elements and the police telling them to “move along”. Maneuvering through doctors and hospitals without good health insurance is incredibly frustrating, to say the least.

The stress responses of poverty start at a young age. Children from low-income families are four times as likely as privately insured kids to receive anti-psychotic meds. Bessel van der Kolk writes, “These medications make children more manageable and less aggressive, but they also interfere with motivation, play, and curiosity, which are indispensable for maturing into a well functioning and contributing member of society.” A study of school kids in Montreal showed that at age 10, kids of lower socioeconomic status had almost double the amount of glucocorticoids circulating their bloodstream, in comparison to kids of higher socioeconomic status. Another interesting study involved a group of elderly nuns. Since they were young adults, they all shared the same diet, health care, and housing. And yet in old age, their patterns of disease, dementia, and longevity were still predicted by the socioeconomic status they had growing up, fifty years prior.

Just as being poor affects health, so too does feeling poor. Many wealthy people experience dissatisfaction and want, always grasping for more to keep up with the nonexistent Joneses. However disconnected from reality this pressure may be, it taps into the stress response and exposes a person to all the same health risks. This distorted view of one’s security also affects their ability to share and redistribute resources to those suffering in poverty.

For 99.9% of human history, satisfaction has been measured by basic needs being met and deep relationships sustained. Robert Sapolsky, biology and neurology professor, writes, “Agriculture is a fairly recent human invention, and in many ways it was one of the great stupid moves of all time. Hunter-gatherers have thousands of wild sources of food to subsist on. Agriculture changed all that, generating an over-whelming reliance on a few dozen domesticated food sources, making you extremely vulnerable to the next famine, the next locust infestation, the next potato blight. Agriculture allowed for the stockpiling of surplus resources and thus, inevitability, the unequal stockpiling of them- stratification of society and the invention of classes. Thus, it allowed for the invention of poverty. I think that the punch line of the primate-human difference is that when humans invented poverty, they came up with a way of subjugating the low-ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world.”

A mentor once told me, “The greatest joy is only known in close proximity to suffering.” Recognizing and naming oppression for what it is can be powerful. It can release someone from their misplaced feelings of shame that came from abuse, or it can open an oppressor’s eyes to the ways in which they have been conditioned to use others for their own benefit. All living beings are intricately connected and our choices can significantly affect another’s life, for better or worse. Increasing awareness of how oppressed human and nonhuman animals live should lead us to seek justice (whether it empowers us as a survivor or disempowers us as an oppressor (sometimes both)). Seeking justice connects us with a deep current of passion that ties us to one another and lets us taste what it means to be truly alive. It may seem like taking on the injustices of our day would only add more stress, but becoming aware of the larger picture puts things into perspective; the small stressors fall away and the big stressors, well, we need not face them alone.

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Content: Creative Commons 2020 Annie SewDev