By William Hudson
Foreclosure can kill you. Humans who are chronically and psychosocially stressed compromise their health despite their best attempts to circumvent their stress reaction. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, has studied the manifestations of stress on the human body for over three decades and unequivocally has proven that the continued release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and glucocorticoids that increase a human’s heart rate and energy levels are destructive to the body’s overall functioning long term.
Foreclosure is typically not a onetime event, but a series of events that occur after a precursor. Precursors to foreclosure typically include financially over-extending one’s self, a health crisis in the family, divorce, job loss or some other type of crisis situation. These events in themselves are extremely traumatic and life-altering, but what happens when the resulting foreclosure becomes a chronic event over a period of years or even a decade?
Humans have not had time to acclimate to our hectic, modern lifestyles and are not built to endure long-term traumatic or stressful events. “The stress response is incredibly ancient evolutionarily,” Sapolsky has said. “Fish, birds and reptiles secrete the same stress hormones we do, yet their metabolism doesn’t get messed up the way it does in people and other primates.”
To understand why you are not designed to deal with ongoing stress he said, “just look at the dichotomy between what your body does during real stress—for example, something is intent on eating you and you’re running for your life—versus what your body does when you’re turning on the same stress response for months on end for purely psychosocial reasons.”
In the short term, Sapolsky says that stress hormones are “brilliantly adapted” to help you survive an unexpected threat. “You mobilize energy in your thigh muscles, you increase your blood pressure and you turn off everything that’s not essential to surviving, such as digestion, growth and reproduction,” he said. “You think more clearly, and certain aspects of learning and memory are enhanced. All of that is spectacularly adapted if you’re dealing with an acute physical stressor—a real one.”
Take for instance the first notice of foreclosure you receive. At that point you go into a fight-or-flight mode to deal with the new threat. However your body, over time, cannot maintain this state of reaction to the stressor. As the foreclosure draws on over a period of years your body no longer knows how to deal effectively with the ongoing events and stress.
Non-life-threatening stressors, such as constantly worrying if the bank is going to foreclose or if your family and friends will find out about your financial issues, triggers the release of adrenalin and other stress hormones, which, over time, can have devastating consequences on your health, he said: “If you turn on the stress response chronically for purely psychological reasons, you increase your risk of adult onset diabetes and high blood pressure. If you’re chronically shutting down the digestive system, there’s a bunch of gastrointestinal disorders you’re more at risk for as well.”
In children whose parents are stressed or who are living under the threat of foreclosure or moving, the continual release of glucocorticoids can suppress the secretion of normal growth hormones. “There’s actually a syndrome called stress dwarfism in kids who are so psychologically stressed that growth is markedly impaired,” Sapolsky said.
Studies show that long-term stress like ongoing litigation or dealing with a servicer who is acting with hostility can also suppresses the immune system. When the immune system is under attack you are more susceptible to infectious diseases, and ongoing trauma can even shut down reproduction by causing erectile dysfunction and disrupting menstrual cycles.
“Furthermore, if you’re chronically stressed, all sorts of aspects of brain function are impaired, including, at an extreme, making it harder for some neurons to survive neurological insults,” Sapolsky has proven. “Also, neurons in the parts of the brain relating to learning, memory and judgment don’t function as well under stress. That particular piece is what my lab has spent the last 20 years on.”
Sapolsky warns: “If you plan to get stressed like a normal mammal, you had better turn on the stress response or else you’re dead. But if you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, like a Westernized human, then you are more at risk for heart disease and some of the other leading causes of death in Westernized life.”
Sapolsky has written four popular books on the subject of stress including—Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Many of his insights are based on his 30-year field study of wild African baboons, who like humans are highly social primates and close relatives of Homo sapiens. For several years, he and his assistants would follow troops of Kenyan baboons to gather behavioral and physiological data, including blood samples, tissue biopsies and electrocardiograms. His findings are alarming and demonstrate how foreclosure can be a silent killer.
“We’ve found that baboons have diseases that other social mammals generally don’t have,” Sapolsky said. “If you’re a gazelle, you don’t have a very complex emotional life, despite being a social species. But primates are just smart enough that they can think their bodies into working differently. It’s not until you get to primates that you get things that look like depression.”
Sapolsky believes this is likely true for elephants, whales and other highly intelligent mammals that have complex emotional lives. “The reason baboons are such good models is, like us, they don’t have real stressors,” he said. “If you live in a baboon troop in the Serengeti, you only have to work three hours a day for your calories, and predators don’t mess with you much.
“What that means is you’ve got nine hours of free time every day to devote to generating psychological stress toward other animals in your troop. So the baboon is a wonderful model for living well enough and long enough to pay the price for all the social-stressor nonsense that they create for each other. They’re just like us: They’re not getting done in by predators and famines, they’re getting done in by each other.”
However, unhealthy baboons, like unhealthy people, typically show elevated resting levels of stress hormones. “Their reproductive system doesn’t work as well, their wounds heal more slowly, they have elevated blood pressure and the anti-anxiety chemicals in their brain, which have a structural similarity to Valium, work differently,” Sapolsky said. “So they’re not in great shape.”
The baboons most susceptible to stress are the low-ranking baboons and type A individuals. “Type A baboons are the ones who see stressors that other animals don’t,” Sapolsky confirms. “For example, having your worst rival taking a nap 100 yards away gets you agitated.”
When it comes to stress-related diseases, social isolation may play an even more significant role than social rank or personality. This is an unfortunate finding for people enduring foreclosure who may withdraw from others due to feelings of shame, guilt and failure. “Up until 15 years ago, the most striking thing we found was that, if you’re a baboon, you don’t want to be low ranking, because your health is going to be lousy,” he explained. “But what has become far clearer, and probably took a decade’s worth of data, is the recognition that protection from stress-related disease is most powerfully grounded in social connectedness, and that’s far more important than rank.”
Thus, one of the worst possible things you can do if you are confronting foreclosure is to isolate yourself from family and friends. However, this is difficult for people who feel no one understands what they are going through (and this is usually an accurate observation), and may feel like a burden when family members no longer want to listen to any more stories about the servicer’s latest violation of law. The homeowner facing foreclosure may become more obsessed with solving the situation, to the point where friends and family members may withdraw from the person when they need support the most.
With that being said, people undergoing foreclosure need a support group of other people dealing with similar issues or at minimum a therapist. In some cases, psychiatric care may be necessary if the homeowner becomes overwhelmed, has anxiety attacks or major depression. The Lending Lies team is attempting to coordinate a national support organization called For-Closure for people enduring the stressors of foreclosure. If you are interested in learning more please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coping with Chronic Stress
What can baboons teach humans about coping with the stress-inducing psychosocial trauma of financial stress and ongoing foreclosure? “Ideally, we have a lot more behavioral flexibility than the baboon,” Sapolsky said. Humans, unlike baboons, can network, specialize and successfully overcome their social status and isolation by belonging to multiple “hierarchies”.
“We are capable of social supports that no other primate can even dream of,” he said. “For example, I might say, ‘This job, where I’m a lowly mailroom clerk, really doesn’t matter. What really matters is that I’m the captain of my softball team or deacon of my church’—that sort of thing. A homeowner has the same ability to say, ‘I may have got myself into a situation I really didn’t understand with an unethical loan servicer. However, I can sue or let the house go and never make the same mistake again. I have my family, some great friends and things that bring me happiness.’
Sapolsky believes that we can actually feel comfort from the discovery that somebody on the other side of the country is going through the same experience we are and feel, I’m not alone. People enduring foreclosure can even take comfort reading about other people who have faced similar issues, and he points out, “there’s no primate out there that can feel better in life just by listening to Beethoven. So the range of supports that we’re capable of is extraordinary.” There are millions of people who have experienced foreclosure and gone on to live happy and productive lives despite the setbacks.
It is important that people enduring the long process of foreclosure or foreclosure litigation continue to do the things that bring them joy. Your health and longevity will depend on how well you are able to compartmentalize the foreclosure issues and prevail in enjoying some type of hobby, family or activity.
Unfortunately, many of the qualities that make us human induce stress, he notes. “We can be pained or empathetic about somebody in Darfur,” he said. “We can be pained by some movie character that something terrible happens to that doesn’t even exist. We could be made to feel inadequate by seeing Bill Gates on the news at night, and we’ve never even been in the same village as him or seen our goats next to his. So the realm of space and time that we can extend our emotions means that there are a whole lot more abstract things that can make us feel stressed.” It is good to acknowledge that our human minds have a tendency to ‘catastrophize’ and think the worst, compare ourselves unfairly to others and be our own worst enemies. We typically believe things are worse than they really will be.
The Pursuit of Happiness
It is likely that the Founding Fathers didn’t consider their health when they declared the pursuit of happiness to be an inalienable right, but when it comes to understanding the importance of a stress-free life, they were scientifically progressive for their time.
“When you get to Westernized humans, it’s only in the last century or two that our health problems have become ones of chronic lifestyle issues,” Sapolsky concludes. “It’s only 10,000 years or so that most humans have been living in high-density settlements—a world of strangers jostling and psychologically stressing each other. But being able to live long enough to get heart disease, that’s a fairly new world.”
Sapolsky is a strong believer that happiness and self-esteem are important when reducing stress. Yet “happiness” has less to do with wealth and material comforts than you might think. He has found that: “An extraordinary finding that’s been replicated over and over is that once you get past the 25 percent or so poorest countries on Earth, where the only question is survival and subsistence, there is no relationship between gross national product, per capita income, any of those things, and levels of happiness.” Except for the most dire financial situations, most Americans have the ability to experience happiness outside financial wealth.
In Greece, for example, a country that is bankrupt, people claim to be much happier than in the United States, the world’s richest nation. And while Greece is ranked number 30 in life expectancy, the United States—with the biggest per capita expenditure on medical care, comes in at 29. What does that tell you? Perhaps it is time that we experience a paradigm shift away from material wealth and we teach the banks that without their extension of credit we will find a way to obtain true joy in our lives. For the past 100 years Americans have been focused on the quantity of wealth instead of the quality of life. In doing so, we have contributed to banks that control our life quality and choices- and bring untold misery to millions of lives.
“The United States has the biggest discrepancy in health and longevity between our wealthiest and our poorest of any country on Earth,” Sapolsky noted. “We’re also ranked way up in stress-related diseases.” It is interesting that England, Ireland, Australia and Canada are all experiencing similar foreclosure and banking issues as the United States but the outrage doesn’t appear to be comparable to the United States.
Yesterday an article on foreclosure in the United Kingdom stated that only 60% of foreclosure fraud is investigated and the article expressed outrage that 100% of the fraud was not being investigated. In the United States, the police refuse to investigate criminal foreclosure matters (larceny, perjury, forgery) claiming it is a civil issue. The lack of integrity among law enforcement and our judicial system contributes to the outrage, feelings of helplessness and feelings that you have been abandoned by your country in which you pay taxes for these services.
Japan is first in life expectancy, largely because of its extremely supportive social network, according to Sapolsky. Oddly, if you google Japanese foreclosure news there are very few stories of banks illegally foreclosing on Japanese families.
Sapolsky found similar health findings in the United States. “Two of the healthiest states are Vermont and Utah, while two of the unhealthiest are Nevada and New Hampshire,” he noted. “Vermont is a much more left-leaning state in terms of its social support systems, while its neighbor New Hampshire prides itself on no income tax and go it alone.
In Utah, the Mormon Church provides extended social support, explanations for why things are and structure. You can’t ask for more than that. And next door is Nevada, where people are keeling over dead from all of their excesses. It’s very interesting.”
If this information holds true we could extrapolate that the lack of social and community support for those enduring foreclosure compromises their long-term health prospects. Isolation is the worst thing possible for those enduring foreclosure, modification, a short sale or even dealing with a loan servicer who deceives, forges documents and will not give the homeowner a straight answer creating ongoing uncertainty.
It could be said that Living Lies provides a venue and support structure for homeowners. The Living Lies community is about empowerment and education. In the near future we will be launching an interactive website called Lending Lies that will provide even more resources and tools for homeowners. As Sapolsky points out, people who have a system and knowledge feel empowered to respond differently to situations. He also believes that a support system of some type brings predictability, social support and control- and at the same time lessens the physically destructive potential of long-term stress. It helps us to deal with, “the scariest realms of our lives.”
Sapolsky believes we are making headway into understanding the neuroscience behind stress. “It’s becoming clear that in the hippocampus, the part of the brain most susceptible to stress hormones, you see atrophy in people with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression,” he said. “There’s a ton of very exciting, very contentious work as to whether stress is causing that part of the brain to atrophy, and if so, is it reversible. Or does having a small hippocampus make you more vulnerable to stress-related traumas? There’s evidence for both sides.”
New studies suggesting that chronic stress causes DNA to age faster. “Over time, the ends of your chromosomes fray, and as they fray your DNA stops working as well, and eventually that could wind up doing in the cell,” he said. “There are now studies showing that chromosomal DNA aging accelerates in young, healthy humans who experience something incredibly psychologically stressful. That’s a huge finding.” Thus, engaging in a stress management protocol may be the best thing you can do for your family.
Neuroscience research may help researchers to understand differences in the way individuals respond to stress. “This gets you into the realm of why do some people see stressors that other people don’t, and why, in the face of something that is undeniably a stressor to everybody, do some people do so much worse than others?” he said. “Genes, no doubt, have something to do with it, but not all that much. However, there is evidence about development beginning with fetal life—prenatal stress, stress hormones from the mom getting through fetal circulation—having all sorts of long-term effects.”
“We’re now about 70 years into thinking that sustained stress can do bad things to your health. The biggest challenge for the next 70 years is figuring out why some of us are so much more vulnerable than others.”
Therefore, if you have endured sustained stress due to a servicer who has no standing to foreclose you have both psychological and physical vulnerabilities. If you are in litigation it is critical that you have a support system of some type to help you navigate this stressful period of your life. Sapolsky suggested that people do whatever they can to reduce stress in their daily lives. “Try stress management, change your priorities or go into therapy,” he said. “It takes work. Some people clearly never can overcome it. But the same things that make us smart enough to generate the kind of psychological stress that’s unheard of in other primates can be the same things that can protect us. We are malleable.”
Although Sapolsky has not studied the brains and body chemistry of people who endure years of foreclosure, many researchers believe that those who have gone through years of chronic exposure to situations they have no control over and in which they feel powerless have extremely high levels of post-traumatic symptomology. Homeowners caught up in one of history’s most toxic and life-altering social experiments will likely teach researchers a lot about how chronic levels of stress alter the brain, contribute to disease and impair the immune system. For those of you in ongoing litigation, you would be wise to document any stress-related or mental health issues and seek treatment immediately.