Why Your Stress Problem is Everyone’s Problem

APA released its annual Stress in America survey yesterday, and we have again found that our nation is under pressure. Yes, average stress levels have declined somewhat from their max in 2007 and 2008, but that was at a time of extreme economic uncertainty when the housing crisis began to bubble, and the nation’s economy was on the cliff, about to take a deep fall.

But even as the nation’s economy begins to improve, we found that yet again, the majority of people surveyed said they are experiencing very high degrees of stress at levels that are higher than they consider healthy.

Our snapshot of stress is even bleaker for those who said they are caregivers or living with a chronic condition. Caregivers reported higher levels of stress, poorer health and a greater tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors to alleviate their stress than the general public. They report feeling overwhelmed by the amount of care their aging or chronically ill family member require of them.

And those with chronic conditions, such as depression, obesity and Type 2 diabetes, are also caught in a vicious cycle. They said they were unable to take necessary steps to reduce their stress and engaged in unhealthy behaviors to manage their stress, thereby reducing their ability to appropriately manage their illness.

We have said for years that people need to be more aware of their stress levels; need to recognize what triggers stress for them; need to recognize how stress can damage their health; and need to manage their stress more effectively.

But while the majority of Americans know this is true, let’s face it, change isn’t easy.

There are a lot of reasons that Americans aren’t taking better care of their stress and their bodies. I believe, along with many others, that while we’re all responsible for our own health, change cannot happen in a vacuum. Aside from individual efforts, supportive social and community networks, as well as a responsive health-care system are needed to help individuals make the changes needed for better health.

We all need to think differently about health and illness.

Most chronic conditions can be prevented by better managing our stress and making better choices about our nutrition, activity level, alcohol and tobacco use, and our strategies for managing stress. By understanding the relationship between stress and chronic illness, we can all take steps to make better choices.

Psychologists working side by side with physicians—as part of someone’s personal health-care team—enhance the possibility that health care focuses on the whole person, not just an illness. Access to the right kind of care from the right kind of health-care provider must be assured in our evolving health care system. More focus on prevention will save lives and health-care dollars in the long run.

We need big changes in our evolving health-care system.

I believe they can happen. They need to happen.

Until then, do your best to make small changes and practice better stress management strategies.

  • Engage understanding people who support the changes you want to make for yourself.
  • Increase your activity level, and make better food choices.
  • Set realistic expectations.

And if your efforts aren’t paying off for you, consider talking to a psychologist who can help you identify and remove those barriers that are standing in the way of the changes you want.