Annual stress survey reveals 1 in 5 Americans under pressure

Each year the American Psychological Association releases its “Stress in America” survey. The last was released yesterday and it showed that too many Americans are stressed.

The stress survey found that more than 1 in 5 Americans report feeling chronic “extreme stress” but also found that, on average, stress levels have dipped slightly since last year’s survey. “Have we reached the point of becoming a chronically stressed nation?” said Michael Ritz, a clinical psychologist in Irvine who serves as the public education coordinator for the California Psychological Assn. “The data might suggest we've reached that point where it just [becomes] a fact of life.”

APA expressed alarm that only about 31 percent of the survey respondents thought that their stress level was having an impact on their health even though the vast majority said they knew that stress can contribute to major health problems like heart disease, depression, and obesity. “When considered alongside the finding that only 29 percent of adults believe they are doing an excellent or very good job at managing or reducing stress,” the survey report stated, the “APA warns that this disconnect is cause for concern.”

The Harris survey samples 1,226 U.S. residents last August and September. Report results showed 44% of the 1,226 people who participated in the nationwide study said they were more stressed now than they were five years ago.

But 27% of respondents said their stress had receded over that period. “The data actually surprised me, because it seems stress should be more prevalent in terms of the economy, people's concerns about unemployment, about making ends meet,” Ritz said.

Among other findings the report noted that last year 66 million Americans cared for a sick or disabled relative. Over half of those polled say they feel “overwhelmed.” Further people struggling with obesity are just as likely to feel overwhelmed as caregivers. Additionally depression sharply adds to a person’s risk of suffering extreme stress. In what the APA calls a vicious cycle, these three groups of people find it much harder to do the things they need to do to reduce their stress — and to protect their health. They watch too much TV. They get less satisfaction from relationships. They don’t eat a healthy diet. They are lonely and isolated.

The APA added that caregivers who feel supported by family members report significantly lower stress levels. “This additional support appears to make a substantial difference in their lives,” the APA notes.

Residents of Los Angeles and Orange counties are about as stressed as the rest of America — but they're probably better equipped to deal with it, the survey found. For instance, they said their ideal level of stress was 3.9, so their actual stress level of 5.3 wasn't as far off the mark as in the country as a whole. And, according to the study, more adults in the two counties say they've done better at eating more healthfully than Americans overall (48% versus 44%), exercising more (45% versus 39%) and losing weight (39% versus 30%). Residents of the two counties are also more inclined to seek professional help to deal with their stress, the survey found. Significantly more agreed that a psychologist could help with managing stress (51%) than did Americans in general (41%).

“It's possible that it has to do with the climate,” said UCLA clinical psychologist Emanuel Maidenberg, who wasn't involved in the survey. “There are more opportunities to use natural resources and be outdoors to do things that are involved in stress reduction, like physical exercise.”

Overall, of the eight major metropolitan areas surveyed, Los Angeles and Orange counties were probably best prepared to better cope with stress, Ritz and Maidenberg agreed. And that could translate into better physical health in addition to better mental health. “Stress contributes to chronic illnesses, like heart disease, diabetes and obesity,” Ritz said, adding that about three-fourths of healthcare dollars go to dealing with chronic maladies.

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