Foreword by Nan-Kirsten Forte, MS, Chief of The Well at Everyday Health
Our research shows that chronic stress is a national epidemic for all genders and ages, particularly those who are 25 to 35 years old. To unpack this problem is a matter partly of mental health and partly of physical health. Here’s the hard truth: The causes and solutions to chronic stress are a complex mixture of socioeconomic, environmental, genetic, physical, and spiritual factors.
Although there are different types of stress (some are even positive), the type we need to pay attention to, say, experts, is chronic stress. This is the stress that makes it hard to sleep well, makes it nearly impossible to lose weight, and finds us fighting one cold after another. It’s the stress that can both cause medical conditions and trigger and exacerbate flare-ups from existing conditions. This kind of stress depresses the immune system, alters our moods, and damages our professional and personal relationships. Just as, on the positive side, yoga has been shown to lengthen the protective caps at the ends of our DNA strands called telomeres and keep us more youthful, ongoing stress can actually change our DNA for the worse.
As a country, we are struggling to address many mental health issues that, it turns out, are closely tied to chronic stress; there are not enough specialists or practicing healthcare professionals to address them. Is it any wonder people turn to social media to feel less isolated — only to find that social media itself can turn into a source of amped up, toxic stress?
Everyday Health is taking a stand on stress for everyone who wrestles with it daily, and especially for those who are most vulnerable to the negative effects of unmanaged stress: those already coping with health issues.
Our goal is to empower people with the knowledge and tools to manage their own stress; to help them recognize and identify the things that trigger their stress response, and to take action before it does them harm. Because we’re not taking care of ourselves right now. Everyday Health’s United States of Stress special report reveals that most of us care for others before we take care of ourselves, and we internalize stress rather than find healthy ways to relieve it. Women especially have this tendency, and among them, younger women in particular — the population segment revealed to be most burdened by stress and most likely to seek help for it.
- Almost one-third of those surveyed say they visited a doctor about something stress-related.
- 57 percent of the survey respondents say they are paralyzed by stress; 43 percent say they are invigorated by stress.
- 51 percent of the women surveyed say they don’t see friends at all in an average week.
- 59 percent of baby boomers have never been diagnosed with a mental health issue; 52 percent of Gen Zers already have been.
- Just over a third of all respondents say their job or career is a regular source of stress. Among millennials and Gen Zers, the chronically work-stressed rises to 44 percent.
- More than half of women (51 percent) say they feel bad about their appearance weekly, and 28 percent say their appearance regularly causes them stress. Only 34 percent of men say they feel bad about their appearance weekly.
- 52 percent of respondents say financial issues regularly stress them out, well above the 35 percent who cited jobs and careers as the next most common stressor.
- 47 percent of all respondents — with women and men almost evenly matched — say that their response to stress is to take it out on themselves.
Stress on steroids. That’s how life feels for many Americans today. Consider senseless shootings, a nasty political climate, catastrophic weather, increasing suicide rates. Factor in close-to-home stressors such as caring for a loved one; parenting a learning-disabled, autistic, depressed, or anxious child; managing your own chronic condition or addiction; looking for a job. Now layer in everyday annoyances — traffic, train delays, a nasty coworker, a long supermarket line after an even longer day. No wonder we feel overloaded, overwhelmed, out of control, and unsafe.
Stress in the modern world is a constant. When stress doesn’t let up and is paired with the feeling that we have little to no control over the circumstances that are creating it, that’s called chronic stress. Over and over again, the research points to one key fact: Prolonged or unremitting stress exacts a stunningly toxic toll on the body, brain, mind, and soul. Its ongoing assault wears us down, measurably aging — or “weathering” — our insides, for some of us much more than others. Chronic stress zaps brainpower by damaging neural pathways and skewing judgment. It compromises the immune system. It taxes the heart, kidneys, liver, and brain.
But does living in the world today mean that no matter what we do, we’re doomed to swim in a sea of stress and its ill effects, including anxiety, meltdowns, and panic attacks? Or could it be that everything we thought we knew about stress and how to manage or alleviate it is outdated or outright wrong? Maybe it’s time for everyone to get on the same page when it comes to stress.
Everyday Health’s United States of Stress special report surveyed 6,700 Americans nationwide ( DOWNLOAD SURVEY DATA), ages 18 to 64, cutting a wide swath across demographic groups, gender, and health conditions to find out what stresses us and how we cope. Our survey panels were chosen to closely mimic the geographic distribution of the U.S. population. (Our respondent distributions won’t match up directly with Census percentages because we phrased our questions about demographics, such as race/ethnicity, differently, with survey participants selecting as many identifiers as applied — including “other” — from a list.) Then, we invited some of the nation’s top “stress response” thinkers to weigh in on the survey data and offer insights.
Even our expert panelists — among them some of the nation’s top researchers — say they’ve been genuinely surprised about the extent of the harm wrought by chronic stress and the lack of attention paid to it.