Feature

More than half of working adults-and 47 percent of all Americans-say they are concerned with the amount of stress in their lives, according to a new telephone survey conducted Jan. 12-24 by APA's Practice Directorate in partnership with the National Women's Health Resource Center and iVillage.com.

Moreover, the survey finds that people experiencing stress are more likely to report hypertension, anxiety, depression or obesity. The survey, which sampled 2,152 adults who are 18 years or older, is part of the Practice Directorate's "Mind/Body Health: For a Healthy Mind and Body, Talk to a Psychologist" campaign. The initiative aims to highlight psychology's role at the intersection between mental and physical well-being.

By focusing on the physical and mental toll of stress, the campaign is shining light on how many Americans react to both work- and family-related stress-by engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as comfort eating, making poor diet choices, smoking and being inactive, says Helen Mitternight, assistant executive director of public relations in the Practice Directorate.

"Americans are stressed out, and they are dealing with that stress in an unhealthy way," says Mitternight.

However, on a positive note, she notes, nearly 20 percent of those most concerned about stress said that seeing a mental health professional could help them get back on track and relieve some of their stress.

Gender differences

Stress is particularly prevalent for the primary decision-maker in the household for health issues, says Mitternight. Since 73 percent of women identify themselves as such, women feel the brunt of the health-care burden, she adds.

"Women are the health-care managers of their families," says Amber McCracken, director of communications for the National Women's Health Resource Center. "From taking care of their own health to serving as the caregivers for their children, partner and parents, each aspect of care brings stress. Unfortunately, too often women do not take the necessary steps to alleviate that stress, and their own physical health suffers."

Moreover, men and women exhibit their stress differently, the survey found. Women are more likely than men to report feelings of nervousness, wanting to cry or lacking energy. Men, 40 percent of whom consider themselves the primary health-care decision-maker, are prone to describing their stressed condition as sleepless, irritable or angry.

Those gender differences are magnified in men and women's coping mechanisms, the survey found. For instance, nearly 31 percent of women say they are comfort eaters, while only 19 percent of men report eating to deal with their problems. The urge to comfort-eat can have complex consequences, as the survey found that comfort eaters are more likely to exhibit higher levels of the most common stress symptoms, including fatigue, lack of energy, nervousness and sleeplessness.

The survey also found that 21 percent of participants who ate at a fast-food restaurant in the week prior to the survey reported being very concerned about stress, while only 13 percent of people who did not eat at a fast-food restaurant in the week prior to the survey were very concerned about stress. Not surprisingly, the fast-food-eaters were also more likely to experience more serious health problems like hypertension and high cholesterol.

Mind/body connection

The survey suggests that for most Americans stress results from a conglomeration of concerns. For instance, an office worker stressing out over a project deadline may quickly down a hamburger and fries while he or she works to save time. In turn, that stress-fueled decision may next lead to health worries.

The office worker's stressors are not unique, as more than half the survey respondents included concerns about money, work, family-member health problems or the state of the world today, as some of their leading sources of stress. More than 40 percent of participants also cited the health of immediate family members and caring for their children as common stressors.

An effective means of dealing with stress, suggests Russ Newman, PhD, JD, executive director of APA's Practice Directorate, is learning how to cope.

"Everybody experiences stress," says Newman. "The key is how effectively people deal with and manage stress. People who turn to comfort food or smoking are starting a vicious cycle. Their attempts to reduce stress can actually lead to health problems that result in even more stress."

To help break the cycle, Newman suggests that stressed people pay attention to their behaviors and lifestyle choices. Additionally, he notes that although some behaviors can be particularly difficult to change, working with a psychologist can help modify those actions.

The survey sponsors released the results at February press event in New York City that garnered national media attention on TV news shows such as "Good Morning America" and in newspapers such as USA Today. In addition to the media campaign, the sponsors are pairing the results with additional tips on how to manage stress. iVillage is also posting a Stress Smarts Quiz on its Web site to help readers understand the seriousness of their stress.

Further Reading

For more stress management information, visit APA Help Center and www.healthywomen.org. You can also take the Stress Smarts Quiz.