Stress Still Linked to Chronic Disease
The American Psychological Association’s (APA) newly released report, Stress in America: Our Health at Risk, paints a troubling picture of the impact stress has on the health of the country, especially caregivers and people living with a chronic illness such as obesity or depression.
The Stress in America survey, which was conducted online by Harris Interactive on behalf of APA among 1,226 U.S. residents in August and September 2011, showed that many Americans consistently report high levels of stress (22 percent reported extreme stress, an 8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale where 1 is little or no stress and 10 is a great deal of stress). While reported average stress levels have dipped slightly since the last survey (5.2 on a 10-point scale vs. 5.4 in 2010), many Americans continue to report that their stress has actually increased over time (39 percent report their stress has increased over the past year and 44 percent say their stress has increased over the past 5 years). Yet stress levels exceed people’s own definition of what is healthy, with the mean rating for stress of 5.2 on a 10-point scale—1.6 points higher than the stress level Americans reported as healthy.
While 9 in 10 adults believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity, a sizeable minority still think that stress has only a slight or no impact on their own physical health (31 percent) and mental health (36 percent). Only 29 percent of adults believe they are doing an excellent or very good job at managing or reducing stress.
Caregivers under fire
Caregivers are not only more likely to report stress than other Americans, they also report it at higher levels. The mean level of stress reported by caregivers was 6.5 as compared to 5.2 by the general public. Fifty-five percent of caregivers say they feel overwhelmed by the amount of care their aging or chronically ill family member requires. Caregivers are more likely than those in the general population to say they’re doing a poor/fair job practicing healthy behaviors, including managing stress (45 percent vs. 39 percent) and getting enough sleep (42 percent vs. 32 percent).
The latest data also demonstrate that caregivers are more likely than people in the general public to have a chronic illness (82 percent vs. 61 percent), rate their health as fair or poor (34 percent vs. 20 percent), and point to personal health concerns as a significant source of stress (66 percent vs. 53 percent). In addition, caregivers appear to manage stress in less healthy ways than the general population; for example, caregivers are twice as likely to report smoking to manage their stress (20 percent vs. 10 percent).
Stress linked to obesity and depression
People living with depression (6.3) or obesity (6.0) report significantly higher average stress levels than the rest of the population (5.2). Those with depression (33 percent) or who are obese (28 percent) are significantly more likely than the general public (21 percent) to say they do not think they are doing enough to manage their stress. As compared to the general public (11 percent), more people who are obese (34 percent) or depressed (22 percent) report that their disabilities or health issues prevent them from making healthy lifestyle changes.
“The Stress in America survey continues to show a nation at a crossroads when it comes to stress and health. We are caught in a vicious cycle where our stress exceeds our own definition of what is healthy, and those who are already living with a chronic illness report even higher levels of stress. Yet we’re ill-equipped to make changes to better manage that stress,” says psychologist Norman B. Anderson, PhD, APA’s CEO and executive vice president.