The Three Faces of Poverty-Related Stress

On Psychology Today, psychologist Llewellyn E. van Zyl takes a close look at the effects of poverty in causing mental and emotional strain among families and the combination of stressors that play a role, including noise, unstable living conditions, and money troubles:

“Over 37.9 million Americans currently live below the poverty line. With more than 11 percent of the American population struggling to afford basic necessities like food, housing, and healthcare, it is not surprising that living in poverty causes severe stress.

This stress significantly increases the probability of developing severe mental health problems for the individual and can emotionally cripple families for generations. Living in poverty can fuel a toxic brew of physical, emotional, and financial strain that arises from prolonged exposure to unsafe living conditions or experiencing severe financial hardships. These daily strains converge into an oppressive phenomenon researchers call ‘poverty-related stress.’

What Is Poverty-Related Stress?

Poverty-related stress happens when ongoing struggles to meet basic physiological (e.g. food, housing) and security needs (e.g. healthcare, safe community) pile up, resulting in a great deal of mental and emotional strain. This nonstop pressure to make ends meet and to manage the problems caused by not having enough money often fuels anxiety, depression, and despair over time. Poverty-related stress is thus like a toxic weight dragging down mental health and making it very hard for people to feel hopeful and flourish.

According to a recent study, poverty-related stress is a contextually driven type of debilitating stress stemming from prolonged exposure to physical, emotional, and psychological strain due to experiencing severe financial hardships. . . . 

However, research also shows that targeted interventions to reduce these specific stressors can improve well-being for those living in poverty. Noise reduction initiatives, housing adequacy policies, financial relief programs, and treatment increasing coping skills all show promise to relieve poverty’s toxic pressures.”

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