APA stress survey: Deepening concerns about connection between chronic disease and stress

Stress levels exceed survey respondents’ definition of what is healthy

By Public Relations staff

January 26, 2012—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 annual 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.

Caregivers report higher levels of stress, poorer health and a greater tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors to alleviate their stress than the general public. On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is little or no stress and 10 is a great deal of stress, 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).

Survey findings show that many people who suffer from depression and obesity say they are unable to take the necessary steps to reduce their stress and therefore engage in unhealthy behaviors.

People living with depression or obesity report significantly higher average stress levels (6.3 and 6.0, respectively) 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.

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). When considered alongside the finding that only 29 percent of adults believe they are doing an excellent or very good job at managing or reducing stress, APA warns that this disconnect is cause for concern.

“Various studies have shown that chronic stress is a major driver of chronic illness, which in turn is a major driver of escalating health care costs in this country. It is critical that the entire health community and policymakers recognize the role of stress and unhealthy behaviors in causing and exacerbating chronic health conditions, and support models of care that help people make positive changes,” says APA CEO and Executive Vice President Norman B. Anderson, PhD.

Dr. Anderson presented survey findings in a town hall meeting at the Newseum in Washington, DC, with APA Executive Director for Professional Practice Katherine C. Nordal, PhD; APA President, Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD; and YMCA of the USA Vice President of Health Strategy and Innovation Jonathan Lever, JD, EdM. The event was moderated by Susan Dentzer, editor-in-chief of Health Affairs and was webcast live.

Stress in America is part of APA’s Mind/Body Health campaign. The survey provides an in-depth look at how stress affects families living in the United States and examines attitudes toward and perceptions about stress across the country.

To read the full report, visit the Stress in America webpage.

For more information, contact the Public Relations department by email or at (202) 336-5898.

The Stress in America survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Psychological Association between August 11 and September 6, 2011, among 1,226 adults aged 18 and older who reside in the U.S. In addition to the 1,226 interviews among the general population, oversamples of 300 caregivers and 1,221 people living with chronic illnesses were also included in the 2011 research. For the purposes of this report, caregivers are defined as adults currently caring for an aging or chronically ill family member. Chronically ill adults are defined as those with at least one of the following conditions: depression, type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. In the report, the adults comprising this group are labeled as “Chronic Illness.” To read the full methodology; visit the Stress in America website.