What is Stress?
Stress is a universal human experience. Stress is the natural response of our bodies to deal with a dangerous situation. Acute stress, or the flight or fight response, is what we commonly think of as our bodies response mechanism to primitive situations like being chased by a bear. Sensing danger our brains unconsciously release a cascade of hormones that allow us to cope with a threat. In our modern world, acute stress is more commonly triggered by rush-hour traffic, pressure to meet a work deadline or problems in a relationship. Stress is different for each of us. We all have different triggers for stress and our bodies respond to stress in different ways. Most frequently we are exposed to long-term stressful situations, such as financial worry, relationships and health concerns. Long-term stress requires us to be able to control the urge to fight or flee in order to prevent anxiety and illness.
Is Stressed Out the New Norm?
According to the American Psychological Association 2013 Stress in America Survey, stressed out is the new norm for most Americans. On a scale of 1 to 10, ranging from little or no stress to a great deal of stress, Americans generally believe 3.6 is a healthy level of stress. Yet, the average American adult’s stress level clocks in at 5.1. Americans reported that managing stress is important to them, but that they are not having much success at managing or reducing stress levels. While 61% of adults reported that managing stress was very or extremely important them, only 35% reported that they were doing a very good or an excellent at it. Stress levels had increased over the past year for 36% of adult survey responders. The majority of adults reported experiencing either physical or emotional symptoms of stress including irritability, lack of motivations, nervousness, fatigue, depression, feeling overwhelmed, or an upset stomach. Money, work and the economy are the most common sources of stress for adult Americans. Across the nation, the majority of adults report having attempted to reduce their stress levels, but only a small percentage report success in doing so. Overall, fewer than four in 10 adults report doing an excellent or very good job at managing stress.
What do Teens, Women and the Residents of Denver have in Common?
The 2013 Stress in America Survey found that not only are younger generations experiencing high levels of stress, they are also manifesting unhealthy behaviors due to stress at a young age. Teens reported average school-year stress levels of 5.8, compared to summertime average levels of 4.6. Many teens reported laying awake at night (35%), overeating or eating unhealthy foods (26%), feeling angry (40%), or skipping exercise (28%) due to stress. Despite reporting a significant impact of stress on their lives, 54% of teens reported that their stress level had a slight or no impact on their physical health and 52% reported that it had little or no effect on their mental health. Millennials and Gen-Xers also reported higher average stress levels than other adults, with an average stress level of 5.7 compared to Baby Boomers with a 4.9 and Matures with a more manageable level of 3.5.
Since the initial Stress in America survey first began tracking Americans’ stress in 2007, women have consistently reported higher rates of stress, more difficulty managing their stress and more symptoms of stress compared to men. The 2013 survey revealed that this gender difference may emerge early on in life as teen girls increased stress levels are on par with adult women’s increased levels compared to male counterparts.
Stress levels vary by where we live, with the most stressed out people residing in the West and the South. However, people living in the West are the most likely to place a greater emphasis on stress management and the most successful at managing their stress. In 2012, the Stress in America Survey examined the stress levels of specific metropolitan areas across the country. The results found that Denver residents reported higher levels of stress compared to people living in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. Citizens of Denver were also more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors due to stress with half of responders reporting overeating or eating unhealthy foods and lying awake at night.
How is Stress Affecting our Lifestyle?
Health is a priority for most Americans. A healthy diet, regular exercise and a good night’s sleep are a recipe most of us know will not only prevent chronic diseases, like heart disease, obesity and diabetes, but also make us happier and more energetic. Yet stress itself is becoming a barrier to achieving heath and often driving us towards unhealthy behaviors to help relieve the financial and emotional stress inherent to our daily lives. Practicing stress management strategies is becoming a necessary part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle where stress is the new norm.
In 2013, more than four out of ten adults reported laying awake in bed at night due to stress, while nearly another four out of ten coped with stress by overeating or eating unhealthy foods. Over the past five years, the majority of American adults reported attempting to make a healthy lifestyle change, yet 13% of those who have tried reported being unsuccessful because they are too stressed. According to the 2013 Stress in America Survey, eating healthy, being physically active and fit, and getting a good night’s sleep were largely considered to be very important to survey participants, but only a third or less reported successfully achieving these goals.
While we may never be able to eliminate stress from our lives, learning to identify what triggers our personal stress and finding effective ways to manage it are essential to a healthy lifestyle in our increasingly stressed out world.