Strands of Data - Understanding the Impact of Financial Access on Stress

On discussing the impact of financial access, I can think of few questions more important than whether and how financial access affects stress. Does a life insurance policy let you sleep easier, knowing that if your husband dies, at least your family will be financially secure? Or does the expense strain your budget too far? Does a safe, secure place to save your money ease your fears about the future? Or does it create tension over how much to put away? Does taking out loans ease the burden of managing day-to-day finances? Or does having debt, in and of itself, merely overwhelm you with the stress of repayment? Answering these questions is paramount to understanding the impact of finance, to understanding whether it is a force for good in the lives of India’s rural citizens.

Research has shown that stress is not just an abstract negative. Stress affects mental, physical and emotional health – and financial stress is no exception. See, for examples, here and here. If we want to understand what impacts stress, then we have to start by understanding how to measure it. Both psychological and physiological measures are frequently used.

Psychological measures focus on questionnaires, subjective self-reported responses that we can then interpret to measure stress. Physiological measures focus on the body’s natural responses to stress, taking advantage of them to objectively measure stress levels. Cortisol is one such response; secreting cortisol is a direct response of the human body to stress. Cortisol can be measured in blood and saliva, although both can be intrusive to collect and difficult to transport.

It’s a well known fact that hair can be tested for drug use – to understand if an athlete is on steroids or if a person has been using illegal substances. Only more recently have we learned that hair can also be used to measure levels of hormones produced by the body itself – cortisol being one of them. The first study to measure cortisol levels in human hair was Raul et al. in 2004, which analyzed hair from only 44 individuals.

As part of a much larger (and longer) survey, The Kshetriya Grameen Financial Services (KGFS) Impact Evaluation asks respondents to part with a small amount of hair – 30 to 50 strands, about the width of a pencil against the scalp, but much less when removed. We bring the samples back to the office in a small bag with a piece of tinfoil folded around the hair, the end closest to the scalp marked with black permanent marker and a small paperclip. 

Hair Sampling Equipment

Later, once the study has progressed further, we will send these samples to a lab for analysis. For a woman with long hair, we can map her levels of long-term stress (the kind that produces cortisol) from the last six months, all from a few strands of hair. Hair samples require very little in terms of storage; they must be kept in plastic bags, but do not need any of the elaborate humidity or temperature controls that are essential for other measures, like blood samples.

When paired with an RCT framework, these hair samples, which we’ll collect from over 3,000 individuals spread across rural Thanjavur and its neighboring districts, will let us examine the causal impact of financial access on stress. It’s hard to imagine that a few strands of hair could possibly contain any information – and yet, with the right research methodology, the right tests and analysis, they can help contribute to building knowledge that could, at least someday, change the future of financial access.

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