A new national survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that one third of Americans are living with extreme stress while nearly half believe stress is damaging their health, their relationships, and work productivity, and that it has got worse in the last 5 years.

Three quarters of Americans (compared with 60 per cent last year) said money and work caused them the most stress, with half mentioning housing costs such as rent and mortgage as a big factor, a result that the APA suggests is linked to the US housing crisis.

Stress had a negative effect on personal and working life, was the view of nearly 50 per cent of Americans, and about one third said it was difficult to manage the responsibilities of work and family.

One quarter of Americans said that stress alienated them from a friend or family member and 8 per cent linked it to divorce or separation.

Executive director for professional practice at the APA, psychologist Dr Russ Newman said that:

“Stress in America continues to escalate and is affecting every aspect of people’s lives – from work to personal relationships to sleep patterns and eating habits, as well as their health.”

“We know that stress is a fact of life and some stress can have a positive impact, however, the high stress levels that many Americans report experiencing can have long-term health consequences, ranging from fatigue to obesity and heart disease,” he added.

The Stress in America online survey is part of the APA’s Mind/Body Health Public Education Campaign. The survey involved 1,848 adults and was carried out in September 2007 on behalf of the APA by Harris Interactive. The results were adjusted for age, sex, race and ethnicity, education, region, and household income to make them representative of the overall American adult population.

Participants were asked questions that distinguished between appropriate and excessive levels of stress, assessed attitude and perceptions, the leading sources of stress, what people did to manage it and what resources they used, and the impact it had on their personal and working lives.

The key results showed that:

  • 28 per cent of Americans said they were managing stress extremely well.
  • However, over 70 per cent reported recently having physical and psychological symptoms of stress.
  • Physical symptoms included: fatigue (51 per cent), headache (44 per cent), upset stomach (34 per cent), muscle tension (30 per cent) and others.
  • Psychological symptoms included: feeling angry or irritable (50 per cent), feeling nervous (45 per cent), lacking energy (45 per cent), feeling tearful (35 per cent).
  • Nearly half of Americans said stress caused them to lay awake at night.
  • 43 per cent of Americans said they were overeating or eating unhealthily as a way to manage stress.
  • 36 per cent said they had skipped a meal in the last month because of stress.
  • Drinkers (39 per cent) and smokers (19 per cent) said they drank or smoked more when highly stressed.
  • 43 per cent said they watched TV more than 2 hours a day and 39 per cent said they played video games or surfed the Net.
  • A good proportion also mentioned healthy ways to manage stress, including: listening to music (54 per cent), reading (52 per cent), exercising or walking (50 per cent), being with family and friends (40 per cent), and praying (34 per cent).

The survey also asked participants about their motivation to change lifestyle or behaviour to reduce stress or manage it more effectively. 35 per cent said they would make changes if diagnosed with a chronic condition. The main motivator for change, mentioned by 60 per cent of the respondents, would be to feel better. 38 per cent said they would be motivated to make changes if they received encouragement from a spouse or partner.

Click here to learn more about stress and how to manage it, and for more information on the survey (APA Help Center).

Written by: Catharine Paddock