Practically all Americans feel moderate amounts of stress, which can interfere with our sleep, rob us of our sense of well-being, and contribute to long-term health problems like headaches or heart disease. But here's something you may not have heard: Nearly half of Americans experienced an earth-shattering, stressful event last year that completely altered their lives. Nearly half of the time, these events were related to a major health problem, either their own or a loved one's that may have ended in death.
That's the finding of a new survey of more than 2,500 Americans released Monday by the Harvard School of Public Health, National Public Radio, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The survey conducted this past March and April examined the role that stress plays in Americans' lives — our personal experiences with stress and how we're trying to manage it.
"What surprised us is that health issues dominated when identifying the most important factor that led to a stressful event," said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard School of Public Health who co-directed the project. "Health issues have a really large scale impact" on our nation's stress levels.
More than one in four of the survey respondents reported having a "great deal" of stress in the past month. Again, health played a big role in whether they were in this extreme end of the stress spectrum: 60 percent of those in poor health reported feeling a great deal of stress, as well as 45 percent of those who were disabled. Those with low incomes, in dangerous jobs, or who were single parents or raising teens also were more likely to be under a lot of stress.
"Most Americans have some level of stress, but it's usually not a serious problem," Blendon said. "We really wanted to focus on those under severe stress because such high levels can lead to additional health problems, like sleep deprivation." Such anxiety can make it harder to manage the health conditions causing the stress in the first place, he added.
A wide variety of daily hassles added to this group's stress load, including juggling family schedules, household tasks, and errands. But contributing just as much were outside forces like hearing what politicians were up to or reading or hearing about troubling news reports.
The survey pinpointed activities most likely to help reduce stress, such as exercise, spending time outdoors, or engaging in hobbies. When asked, however, what they, themselves, did for stress management, only 49 percent regularly exercised, 57 percent went outdoors, and 46 percent spent time on a hobby, yet about 90 percent of respondents felt that all three of those activities were the best ways to manage stress.
A significant 85 percent said prayer or meditation worked well, but only 57 percent regularly meditated or prayed.
"They weren't using techniques to handle stress that they reported helped them most," Blendon said.
I, though, wanted to know more about the other extreme: those 14 percent of lucky folks who said they had no stress at all in the past month. What sorts of activities did they engage in to keep themselves so calm? Half took steps to reduce stress, and four in ten reported that their religion or faith was the reason they weren't stressed.
"Mostly, they thought they had personalities that sort of protected them from responding to stressful situations," Blendon said. Call it denial, resilience, or just an inborn sense of optimism.
Deborah Kotz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.