Boil down the findings from APA’s 2010 Stress in America survey, and the message is clear: Chronic stress — stress that interferes with your ability to function normally over an extended period — is becoming a public health crisis.

"America is at a critical crossroads when it comes to stress and our health," says APA Chief Executive Officer Norman B. Anderson, PhD.

Part of APA’s Mind/Body Health campaign, the survey revealed the impact stress is having on Americans’ physical and emotional health. Harris Interactive conducted the online survey of adults and young people ages 8 to 17 in August.

Key findings include:

  • Stress is up. Most Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress, with 44 percent reporting that their stress levels have increased over the past five years. Concerns about money, work and the economy top the list of most frequently cited sources of stress. Fears about job stability are on the rise, with 49 percent of respondents citing such fears as a source of stress — up from 44 percent last year.

  • Children are hurting. Stress is also taking a toll on kids. Almost a third of children reported that in the last month they had experienced a physical health symptom often associated with stress, such as headaches, stomach aches or trouble falling or staying asleep. In addition, parents don’t realize their own stress is affecting their kids. While 69 percent of parents say their stress has only a slight or no impact on their children, just 14 percent of youth say their parents’ stress doesn’t bother them. Stress is a special problem for the third of young respondents who reported being slightly or very overweight. Overweight children worry more than normal-weight children, the survey found. The relationship between stress and overweight is bidirectional, says psychologist Kathryn Henderson, PhD, director of school and community initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. "Weight gain can be both cause and consequence of stress," she says. When kids are under stress, she explains, they may eat too much, sleep too much or favor sedentary coping activities like watching television; the resulting weight gain and the teasing and bullying that often accompany it can lead in turn to more stress, creating a cycle that can be difficult to escape from.

  • Self-care isn’t a priority. Only 40 percent of Americans rate their health as very good or excellent. They also know they’re not doing a good job taking care of themselves. While 54 percent agreed that physical activity was very or extremely important, for example, just 27 percent of respondents were happy about their own level of exercise. Instead of managing their stress in healthy ways, Americans are indulging in unhealthy behaviors: Almost a third of adults say they skipped a meal because of stress in the past month. Two-fifths reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress. And more than 40 percent reported that they had lain awake at night.

  • Lack of willpower is a problem. Americans cite lack of willpower as the biggest barrier to adopting healthier behavior. But 70 percent believe that willpower is something they can learn or improve — if only they had more money, energy or confidence in their ability to change. To Henderson, those responses are misguided but not surprising given our culture’s emphasis on personal responsibility. "Survey respondents are mistakenly looking to some kind of inner strength to make the kinds of health behavior changes we want to see, when the reality is in large part they’re at the mercy of their environment," she says, pointing to data on the role of food costs, advertising and other environmental factors in shaping eating behavior. "Our job is to teach people how to structure their environment to increase the likelihood of making healthy choices at any given time."

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By raising awareness of stress and its impact, says Anderson, the survey is good news for both Americans in general and psychologists. Within the first week of the survey’s release, there were more than 800 stories about it in newspapers, television programs, radio stations and online news channels.

—R.A. Clay