Find out how debt is turning the American Dream into the American Nightmare—and what to do about it

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
April 20, 2016

The American Dream has long been seen as the ultimate goal for life happiness and success, but how we get it, and the ensuing debt, is quickly turning it into the American Nightmare.

Over 80 percent of Americans are in debt, according to the latest numbers, with an average of $15,800 in credit card debt alone. But while that debt may seem like just a fact of life at this point, our brains are being crushed by the stress of living with it hanging over our heads-and that stress is manifesting in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, says Galen Buckwalter, Ph.D., a psychological research scientist and Chief Science Officer at Payoff, a financial wellness company that specializes in helping people get out of debt. (It's Not Just You-Americans As a Whole Are More Stressed Than Ever.)

But could something as mundane as debt really be so traumatic that it's causing a mental illness normally associated with war veterans? Buckwalter says he first noticed the trend in his own clients when, during financial assessments, they started show symptoms of the mental illness that he'd studied extensively in other contexts. So he decided to do a study on the link between financial burden and PTSD.

"We found 23 percent of Americans-and 36 percent of millennials-experience a debilitating degree of stress surrounding their finances, resulting in pathological effects on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are most commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder," he explains.

Calling it Acute Financial Stress (AFS), Buckwalter says that people suffering from the condition show four main symptoms: they are in denial about the extent of their problem; they have strong avoidance behaviors that aren't necessarily rational or done by choice; they feel unable to plan, organize and manage their financial life; and they show feelings associated with PTSD, including agitation, irritability, hypervigilance, self-destructive behavior and isolation that can lead to an inability to have loving feelings towards others. (Check out 10 Weird Ways Your Body Reacts to Stress.)

And-make no mistake-AFS is every bit as serious as more mainstream forms of PTSD. "There was a sense on the part of some mental health professionals who were told about AFS that it must be 'PTSD-lite' and that study participants must be exaggerating their symptoms," he says. "However, it was the universal experience of a variety of experts who observed participant interviews, either live or on video, that these people are living with a devastating condition and that their symptoms are profound and life-altering, leaving each of them feeling incapable of making even the smallest step toward positive change."

If any of this sounds familiar to you, or you just feel paralyzed by or depressed about your debt, Buckwalter says the key is to make "scalable" changes. Start small, with incremental steps, to pay off debt-every little bit counts! And Payoff is planning on introducing a program to help with that, he adds, later this year. In the meantime, read up on the 16 Money Rules Every Woman Should Know by Age 30.