- New research finds adults in the United States are feeling their highest levels of stress since the pandemic began last year.
- Experts say the majority of the nation is experiencing collective trauma at this point.
- Prolonged stress can affect both mental and physical health.
- Experts also say focusing on “basic self-care strategies,” such as well-balanced eating and sleeping routines, and daily exercise can help combat the negative effects of prolonged stress.
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People in the United States are living under a mountain of stress, from a pandemic that shows no signs of abating to political unrest and economic instability.
As we near the one-year marker for the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, adults throughout the nation are reporting their highest stress levels since the start of the health crisis early last year.
The new survey “Stress in America: January 2021 Stress Snapshot” from the American Psychological Association (APA) offers a view into how this collective stress caused by the pandemic and its related social and cultural upheaval is affecting us.
“Nobody is immune to the stress that’s happening right now, different people are experiencing different levels of stress overall,” said C. Vaile Wright, PhD, APA’s senior director of health care innovation. “We just weren’t built to maintain this level of stress and hypervigilance and hyperarousal for this length of time.”
Wright told Healthline that given people are reporting their highest levels of stress since the beginning of the pandemic, people are showing “a lot of stress-related symptoms and emotions.”
Faced with the pandemic and political and economic uncertainties, “we are almost at a breaking point of so many stressors, with many of them out of our control.”
The survey was conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of the APA. It ran from Jan. 21 to 25 and questioned 2,076 people 18 and older in the United States.
The survey revealed 84 percent of adults in the United States say the country has “serious societal issues” that need to be addressed.
It also found the average stress level of respondents over the course of the prior month to be 5.6 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “little to no stress” and 10 standing at “a great deal of stress.”
This is higher than stress levels from other APA “Stress in America” surveys conducted since last April.
Zeroing in further, 84 percent of adults said they experienced at least one emotion tied to prolonged stress in the prior 2 weeks, with the most common being anxiety at 47 percent, sadness at 44 percent, and anger at 39 percent.
And 67 percent said that the challenges the United States is facing now is “overwhelming.”
“I think we’ve sort of seen this progression over the last three to four to five years, with people really reporting stress driven by national-level kinds of issues,” Wright said. “Whereas before, it was more work, family life, money, those sorts of things that we have some more control over more or less.”
“We are as a nation experiencing this collective trauma at this point,” she said.
There was some optimism, though. About 9 in 10 adults said they hope the country will move toward a place of unity. Wright said this particularly stood out to her because it shows the “large majority of Americans regardless of party affiliation want to move toward unity.”
It makes sense that this is a desire shared by many. The survey shows that 81 percent of respondents cited the “future of our nation” as a significant source of stress, while 80 percent and 74 percent pointed to the pandemic and political unrest, respectively.
The report also shows that 66 percent of adults said the breach at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a significant stressor.
As with most aspects of American life, the survey showed how some groups are more vulnerable to stress than others. It found 74 percent of Black adults found the attack on the Capitol a source of stress versus 65 percent of white adults and 60 percent of Hispanic adults.
Dr. Michael Young, service chief of The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt, a psychiatric hospital in the Baltimore, Maryland, suburb of Towson, said that it was not a surprise that the survey revealed more than 4 in 5 adults in this country are displaying “signs of prolonged stress.”
“I think one major factor involved is simply that confirmed COVID-19 cases have remained high, requiring restrictions to be maintained at very high levels across many parts of the country,” said Young, who was not affiliated with the survey.
“Social connection is a fundamental source of well-being and renewal for most people, and the ongoing social restrictions from the pandemic continue to disrupt many of the well-established social routines,” he added.
Young told Healthline that this cumulative buildup of stress can have a domino effect on our health. It can impact our physical health and well-being and emotional health.
“Stress can negatively impact our immune system, cardiovascular health, and worsen the experience of chronic pain and other medical conditions,” he said.
Dr. Judith Cuneo, associate director of clinical programs and an integrative obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, said that stress can cause irritability and exacerbate one’s anxiety and fear.
“Just a low or depressed mood, simply, sadness, can affect people’s resilience and over time that sort of chronic stress and low-level stress can begin to affect our health and reduce our immune function and worsen chronic diseases that are present and stress-related illnesses that are present,” said Cuneo, who was not affiliated with the survey.
She said worsening chronic pain can impact our relationships with those we are close to and affect our ability to do day-to-day tasks, even our jobs — especially as many are dealing with the shifts associated with working from home as we shelter-in-place during the pandemic.
“That low-level chronic stress can put us into that sympathetic nervous system activation, that ‘fight or flight’ stress reaction,” she told Healthline. “What follows is a cascade that happens that we may not be aware of, physical changes like our heart rate goes up, our blood pressure goes up, our hyperarousal deteriorates.”
Cuneo said all of this leaves us anxious and we have less reliance to handle these stressors. We can develop maladaptive coping mechanisms, evolving our responses in sometimes unhealthy ways to respond to this stress.
It can feel intimidating to tackle these sources of stress, especially given that they stem from what can feel like larger-than-life national, even global, concerns.
Young said it’s best to focus on “basic self-care strategies” that include balanced eating and sleeping routines, and daily exercise to boost our immune systems and protect our physical health.
“I suggest prioritizing self-care and role model this for others,” he said. “Participating in an online yoga class, practicing daily mindfulness meditation, going for a nature walk, and taking the time to do enjoyable activities like reading a favorite book or watching a favorite show with loved ones can all be restorative activities that combat stress.”
Young added that activities like playing chess and practicing yoga have been two effective methods he’s personally turned to during this time.
“I encourage everyone to find the healthy activities that work for you in reducing stress and incorporate them into your life on a daily basis,” he said.
Cuneo said that one big challenge for a lot of people over the course of the past year has been the fact that access to typical outlets for this stress relief has been closed off to people due to COVID-19.
Many have felt unsafe visiting gyms or even going to see their doctors or therapists.
Due to this, underlying conditions and chronic illnesses have gone untreated and been poorly managed.
This has further added to people’s stresses as they deal with the continuing pandemic and national political ruptures.
Cuneo echoed Young and said that sleep is one of the most accessible ways to take care of yourself during this time.
Physical activity of some kind as well as eating nutritious diets are surefire ways to combat stress and improve overall health and wellness.
Cuneo highlighted the work done at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine that includes mind-body practices — everything from mindfulness meditation to yoga to biofeedback practice — as ways to help the body heal and for you to mentally and physically respond to stress.
Wright pointed to another major source of stress: technology.
Many of us receive a constant daily barrage of notifications that share all kinds of distressing information.
Wright said that it’s important to give yourself a break. Turn off your notifications, turn on settings giving you specific daily time limits for certain apps on your phone, as well as instill healthy behaviors around technology in your household.
This can include modeling behavior for children. (No cellphone at the dinner table, please.)
She said it’s necessary to avoid the doomscrolling that can consume — and derail — your day.
All of this stress management comes with setting realistic expectations for yourself for how to handle the ups and downs of our current era.
“I think a lot of people were really hoping going into 2021 that there would be this sense of relief, and I think what we are seeing is that it hasn’t happened yet,” Wright said.
“That’s another important message for people: To realize they are not alone in still feeling high levels of stress,” Wright said. “It’s important for them to not judge themselves too harshly for it.”