Americans’ stress levels on the rise, survey says

By Catherine Robertson Souter
April 1st, 2017

For the first time in a decade of surveys, the American Psychological Association has seen a significant rise in stress levels in America.

In 2016, after hearing from APA members that the 2016 presidential election was a growing issue for clients, the organization decided to address the elephant/donkey in the room and add a question about politics and stress to its annual Stress in America survey.

“We were shocked when we got the data,” said Vaile Wright, Ph.D., a member of APA’s Stress in America team. “We released that original data and were immediately asked by members if we were doing a follow-up survey.”

When they followed up, the survey showed that the percentage of Americans feeling stress around politics has not diminished since the election as some expected but, instead, has risen.

The results showed that, overall, average stress in America rose from 4.8 to 5.1 on a scale of 1 to 10, the first significant increase in a decade.

In the fall, the survey showed that 52 percent of Americans were stressed about the presidential election. The January data showed that two-thirds of Americans say that they are stressed about the nation’s future; 57 percent point to the current political climate as a source of stress; and 49 percent specified that it was the outcome of the election itself.

The numbers seem to fit in with what psychologists locally are seeing, according to Kathryn Robbins, PR chair and public education coordinator for the New Hampshire Psychological Association.

“Practitioners are seeing the highest level of distress in years of practice and it keeps building,” she said.

The political climate has affected schools where bullying rates have risen in response to the negativity modeled at the national level, she said, along with individual students’ fears of parents being deported or being harassed over religion.

With LGBTQ clients, NHPA members have seen issues of feeling disrespected and fearful for their safety.

In Massachusetts, a predominantly blue state, the election result hit especially hard, according to Phil Levendusky, Ph.D., ABPP, director of psychology training at McLean Hospital.

“It was an unpredictable outcome,” he said. “Then the person who won was someone people may not have confidence in and there is anger and fear about what his presidency will look like. It is totally uncharted territory.”

The rates of stress have continued to rise, he added, because of the continual changes that people are bombarded with in the news and online.

“If you had asked me a few days after the election about my prediction, I would have said that people would continue to talk about it but time has a way of healing and people will be able to get back in touch with the stability of our government,” he said. “But, we get a reprieve for maybe three days and then something new falls and you get reactions from both sides and the president shares freely with his public commentary.”

The APA has released a list of guidelines for the public on how to deal with stress around the election, from taking a breather from news to re-connecting with friends and family. Levendusky suggests that, in addition, psychologists encourage clients to do basic self-care, eat right and exercise, but also to find a way to channel their stress into action.

“In my mind, the key with stress is the person’s inability to find a sense of control,” he said. “I have seen people’s efforts to try to get a handle on the stress with public outcry or a march or grassroots activities. It is a way to not feel like we are the victims of the environment but active agents in managing our environment.”

Psychologists feeling the stress themselves must be sure to follow the same guidelines with self-care first and then taking action where appropriate. Advocating for minorities and other vulnerable groups is a must, Robbins said.

At this point, the Stress in America team has not made plans to do another follow-up survey instead focusing on disseminating the results along with helping psychologist help their clients cope.

“In the time between August and January, we saw the first significant increase in stress in 10 years of doing the survey,” said Wright. “This stress is real and not necessarily related to the typical things people worry about like finances, the economy or their health. This stress is about personal safety, acts of terrorism and the political climate. People are worried about their safety and security and this is something that I know that psychologists can address.”

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