Health problems lead the list of stress-inducing events experienced by Americans last year. But while health, work, finances and family can all set people on edge, there are ways to cope, experts say.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NPR and the Harvard School of Public Health teamed up to ask 2,505 adults about stressful situations in their lives. In "The Burden of Stress in America" poll, 49 percent reported major stress during the year. Of those, 43 percent named health, including illness and disease (27 percent), or the death of a loved one (16 percent) as causes of stress. The next-most-common stressors were work (13 percent), life changes and family issues (9 percent each) and problems with personal relationships (6 percent).
More than a third said their stress levels had been high in the last month, and health again figured prominently: Those same people cited poor health (60 percent), disability (45 percent) and chronic illness (36 percent) as major stressors. Not having enough money and facing danger were also named by 36 percent of these respondents, barely edging out single parenting and raising teens (35 and 34 percent). Findings have a 2.4 percent plus or minus confidence level.
"We were particularly interested in this topic because stress has a huge impact on a family's ability to be as healthy as possible," said Kristin Schubert, director of the foundation's Vulnerable Populations Portfolio. "If a person is stressed on a day-to-day basis, a biological response in the body can undermine health and well-being. We wanted to understand what kind of stress people are experiencing and to raise awareness about it. I do not know if people all draw the connection between stress and well-being."
One surprise in the poll, she noted, was how many people experience stress daily. "All of us can relate to the stressful day. You get over it. For a lot of people, that kind of stress happens day in and day out, and the more challenges a person has going on in life, the greater the chance," Schubert said, adding that some of it is toxic, causing health to deteriorate over time.
Stress is designed to be a protective factor, tripping a "fight-or-flight" response that can save people from harm. But when stress remains high over time, it takes a major toll. The Mayo Clinic says effects can include anxiety and depression, stomach and heart problems, disordered sleep, weight gain and impairment of memory and focus.
Stress also increases conflict, putting pressure on relationships, said Don MacMannis, a Santa Barbara, California, psychologist and the co-author of "How's Your Family Really Doing?" The brain sends hormones into the body, kicking off the "fight-or-flight" response — and often, it's "fight." "If I am upset inside, I am more likely to find something to pick at about you. I might have rolled with the punches, but with stress, I criticize you."
One person's stress can take out an entire family. Discoveries about the brain's neurons have led some researchers to conclude that "emotion is contagious" within families, MacMannis said. Work stress, for instance, gets passed around the clan.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation president and CEO Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey said recognizing the presence and roots of stress can lead to creating better home, workplace and community environments.
Who feels stress
The women polled were far more likely than men to say they'd experienced major stress in the last month (48 percent vs. 25 percent). For low-income families — those with incomes below $20,000 — 7 in 10 cited finances as a major stressor, compared with 35 percent of those with larger incomes.
Too much responsiblity, financial challenges and work problems were also listed as causes of major stress in the poll results.