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Stressed Out: Americans Tell Us About Stress In Their Lives

Monday July 07, 2014

Scott Hensley & Alyson Hurt


Everyone seems to talk about feeling stressed out. But what's the reality of stress in America these days?

NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a nationwide poll in March and early April to find out.

Our questions zeroed in on the effect of stress in Americans' lives. We asked about people's personal experiences with stress in the preceding month and year. We also asked about how they perceived the effects of stress, how they cope with stress and their attitudes about it.

Over the next two weeks, NPR will present a series of stories on the air and online about stress in America. Here are some of the highlights of what we found after surveying more than 2,500 adults across the country.

Who's Stressed?

About half of the people surveyed, 49 percent, said they'd had a major stressful event or experience in the past year. Health-related problems were the most common source of stress.

A look at the most recent month found that about a quarter, or 26 percent of people surveyed, said they'd had a "great deal" of stress then.

Some groups among the respondents stood out. People in poor health and those who are disabled were the most likely to have experienced a lot of stress in the preceding month.

What's Stressing People Out?

Overall, the factors that affected people the most included too many responsibilities, financial troubles and work problems. But personal health problems and health problems in the family were also commonly cited.

The data get particularly interesting when you dig in and look at how the factors vary among different groups of people. Young adults, for instance, felt the most overwhelmed by responsibilities, while older people were most likely to say that personal health problems were stressful.

Check out these heat maps for the details.

How Do People Respond To Stress?

We were curious about how stress affects people's behavior, particularly in areas that can affect health. Among people who said they'd had a great deal of stress in the previous month, the most common change was sleeping less than usual. After that, eating less and exercising less were the most frequently cited changes.

Stress Isn't Always Negative

Sometimes a little stress helps get you going. A majority of the people who had felt highly stressed in the past month said that at some point in their lives stress had been a good thing. Young adults were the most likely to say that.

But there are a few people, believe it or not, who may be missing out on the positives and negatives of stress. About 1 in 7 Americans said they hadn't had any stress at all in the past month. How is that possible? Well, two-thirds of the unstressed said it was because of their personality. Other factors that helped people stay relaxed were steps they had taken to reduce stress and an absence of stressful events in the past month.

You can find a fuller overview of the poll's findings, including charts at www.npr.org.


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