A recent Gallup poll found Americans feel more stressed out today than in recent history. Stress is a constant, disrupting our sleep, trailing us through our waking hours and even damaging our DNA. A growing body of research shows stress puts us at greater risk for litany of chronic conditions and influences everything from our mental wellbeing to our longevity.
Here’s what we know about this national epidemic.
How common is stress?
Stress afflicts 8 in 10 Americans, per a recent Gallup poll. Women bear the brunt of stress, with half of the women in the poll reporting feeling “frequent stress,” compared to 40 percent of men.
Worries about money, work, and the future of our country, are the leading sources of stress among Americans, a 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association found. Other stressors include the nation’s divided political climate, violence and crime.
Teens and young adults are the nation’s most stressed out group, a survey by Everyday Health showed. This age group, commonly known as Generation Z, faces a catalog of chronic stressors that include punishing student loan debt, an unpredictable new gig economy and a social-media life with 24/7 demands. Despite constant connectedness, this age group feels lonelier than other generations, which adds to their stress, researchers say.
What are the symptoms of stress?
Stress appears in all different forms — from the physical to the psychological — and the symptoms often depend on the person. That’s because your stress response is largely ingrained in your DNA.
“Some people have a tendency to become more agitated under stress; others become sad, withdrawn, or irritable,” explained Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in an interview with Everyday Health.
Still, most people report feelings of irritability or fatigue. Asked about their stress symptoms in a survey by the American Psychological Association, respondents said stress made them feel nervous or anxious (36 percent), irritable or angry (35 percent), and tired (34 percent). Other signs of stress include headaches, upset stomach, muscle tension, a change in appetite, grinding teeth or a change in sex drive.
Results from the APA survey also suggest that symptoms of stress are worsening. In 2016, 40 percent of those surveyed reported lying awake at night at least once a month because of stress. A year later, that number had jumped to almost half.
Is stress bad for my long-term health?
Chronic stress alters the body’s building blocks, damaging chromosomes and DNA, and flooding the system with the stress hormone cortisol. The pervasive nature of stress means it aggravates thousands of medical conditions, but is most commonly associated with tension headaches, gastrointestinal ailments, heart-related symptoms, skin problems, and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, per Everyday Health.
“If the stress side of our nervous system is overactive, it literally affects every tissue in our body,” explained Philip Barr, MD, a physician with Duke Integrative Medicine in North Carolina. “Any kind of disorder that is already going on in that organ system can be made worse by stress.”
Between 60 and 80 percent of visits to primary care doctors are related to stress, even though a mere 3 percent of patients recieve help for their stress, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found.
New research is now exploring whether chronic stress, and extended exposure to cortisol, triggers type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease. A paper published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism suggests cortisol may be linked to lower levels of insulin sensitivity and reduced insulin output — two warning signs for type 2 diabetes.
Other research published in the American Journal of Health Behavior found that stress raises the risk of diabetes among African American teens, per Everyday Health. Stress contributed to unhealthy coping behaviors, such as indulging in sugary, high-fat foods and overeating.