It's no secret that as a general rule, we are all a bunch of deeply stressed folks. We have a gazillion things we need to get done in a day, emails and texts are flying at us at all hours, and we're constantly working to pay for fun things like food. But if you've noticed that your level of stress has been creeping up slowly over time, you are not alone. For the first time ever — amazingly — a study has been done that tracks levels of stress in the United States over time, and guess what? We have all really worked ourselves into an increasingly frantic frenzy over the years, but when it comes to piling on stress to the max, women are the best. What an honor.
The study was lead by Carnegie Mellon University's Sheldon Cohen and Denise Janicki-Deverts. They used three surveys done in 1983, 2006, and 2009 to compare changes in stress levels. All three surveys involved roughly 2,000 adults in the U.S. who were evaluated using the Perceived Stress Scale, which was developed by Cohen. The researchers looked at the levels of stress over time, broken down by gender, age, race, education, income, and employment status. What they found was that between 1983 and 2009, stress had increased for almost every category they analyzed, anywhere between 10 and 30 percent. Men's stress went up 25 percent over that period, while women's only went up 18 percent. But before you start feeling sorry for those increasingly frazzled men, you should know that at all three points when data was taken, women had higher levels of stress than men. So we win at being the most stressed! Congratulations to us? Our prize is getting to worry about what we should get ourselves as a prize.
They also found, not surprisingly, that people with the lowest levels of education and/or those who had the lowest income had the highest levels of stress. Minorities were more stressed than white people were, but when they accounted for all of the other demographic factors that difference went away. As for the effect of the financial crisis, they found that it was white, middle-aged men with college degrees and full-time jobs who were affected most. Their stress increase as a result of the financial meltdown was almost double the increase seen in any other demographic group. Hmm, Mancession indeed.
The good news is that stress appears to go down as we get older. Twenty-year-olds were more stressed than 30-year-olds, etc. And retired people were less stressed than people still working. So maybe there is hope that we won't have to spend our golden years tearing out what little hair we'll have left.
Cohen does warn that because of the way the data was collected—telephone survey in '83 versus two online surveys later—it's impossible to know for certain that stress has increased because people may have been more likely to report their stress using one method or the other. Still, David Spiegel, a psychiatrist who is the director of Stanford Medical School's Center on Stress, says these findings make sense. Between 1982 and present day, he says, "economic pressures are greater, and it's harder to turn off information, and it's harder to buffer ourselves from the world." It's true. I mean think about how much Ambien and other things we have to take just to get ourselves to sleep.
So, aside from the fact that being stressed out all the time is extremely unpleasant, is this increase putting our society in some kind of danger? Are we going to have a colossal collective meltdown and all move off the grid? Probably not, as tempting as that sometimes sounds. (Although all the chores that'd be required to live without electricity would no doubt bring a new stress all its own.) No, the biggest problem with living as we are today is that stress has proven to be very bad for our health. As Cohen explains,
We know that stress contributes to poorer health practices, increased risk for disease, accelerated disease progression and increased mortality. Differences in stress between demographics may be important markers of populations under increased risk for physical and psychological disorders.
So, in other words, women are going to be more likely to have health problems on account of our extra stress. Same goes for those who are poor or uneducated. Terrific, because that's just what we need on top of our already over the top stress: medical problems to worry about. You can't win. Speaking of winning, we have to remember to buy ourselves that Most Stressed Out prize we talked about earlier. We cannot forget to put it on our to-do list. Maybe we can pick something up in the 10 minutes we have free between work and that doctor's appointment we made to see if we were dying from being so stressed.
Image by Jim Cooke, clamp photo via Krasowit/Shutterstock.