Politics, an overdue credit card bill, or a fight with your loved one: If these things cause your blood pressure to rise, you’re not alone.
When you’re traveling and realize you’ve made a wrong turn, do you get stressed out and immediately call on Siri, or do you relish the chance for some spontaneous discovery? Neither response is wrong; it simply illustrates that when it comes to stress, one person’s reason for freaking out may be another person’s adventure.
“Stress includes a big, fat layer of interpretation,” says Alka Gupta, MD, codirector of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing program at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. “It’s really less about the so-called stressful event itself and more about your response, which arises from how you’re wired, what you’ve experienced in the past, and the strategies you’ve cultivated to cope with stressful situations,” she explains.
On the broadest level, stress arises when events leave us feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
“Stress can come from any number of sources, whether trauma, difficult family relationships, health issues, or the dialogue in your own head,” says Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a staff physician at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Even what we think of as a happy event, like throwing a party, can be stressful.”
Yet the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2017 Stress in America survey (1) did find that certain events are likely to cause our blood pressure to skyrocket; this year, in particular, fear about the state of our nation is a huge stressor. Here are the most common reasons we stress out.
The Top Two Stressors Guaranteed to Make Americans Feel Stressed: Politics and Money
For the first time since 2007, when the APA conducted its first annual Stress in America survey, (2) worries about the future of our nation edged out concerns about money. While 62 percent of Americans say they feel tense about money, according to the APA survey, 63 percent of the nearly 3,500 Americans polled are more worried about the U.S. political situation, citing concerns about healthcare (43 percent), the economy (35 percent), trust in government (32 percent), and terrorism (30 percent). (1)
Money is a major stressor, both on a broad level and in the home. In the APA survey, 28 percent of people say they are worried about high taxes, while 22 percent cite unemployment and low pay as causes of concern. (1) More money-related stressors:
- 66 percent are worried about the cost of health insurance.
- 34 percent are concerned about unexpected expenses.
- 30 percent say they worry about not having enough for retirement.
- 25 percent can’t get a handle on paying for life’s basics.
Another Common Cause of Stress: Work, Both at Home and in the Office
Work, too, is a perennial source of agita. In the APA survey, work comes in as the third major stressor, with 61 percent of Americans citing it as a source of stress. (1) “With everyone connected to their digital devices, people are spending longer hours at work, even when they’re home — it’s harder to disconnect,” says Dr. Gupta. “That means we’re spending less time with family and friends, which makes things more stressful.”
More stressful stats: In a 2016 survey from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health titled The Workplace and Health, (3) 43 percent of adults surveyed said that work had a negative impact on their stress level. And 20 percent of adults said they’d experienced a great deal of work stress in the past 12 months.
Men vs. Women: What Stresses Us Out Tends to Differ
Women consistently report feeling more stress than men do. According to the APA survey, on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being "little or no stress" and 10 being "a great deal of stress," women rate their stress level as 5.1, compared with 4.4 for men. (1)
Women also tend to feel stressed about different things: While only 25 percent of men say they feel stressed by issues such as hate crimes, war, and terrorism, the number of women who say they are stressed about these things is more than 10 percent higher.
What if You Don’t Know What’s Causing Stress in Your Life, But You Still Feel Overwhelmed?
It’s incredibly common to feel stressed and not know exactly why. “I see that all the time,” says Gupta. She recommends talking things out with your doctor, a counselor, or someone who knows you well. “Often, it’s possible for me to get to the heart of a patient’s stress just by listening and continuing to dig deeper.” Other times, some type of counseling can do the trick. Whatever route you choose, “the key is to adopt an openness and willingness to explore,” says Gupta.
Is It Possible to Control the Sources of Stress in Your Life?
It’s probably easier and more effective to learn techniques for managing stress than it is to try to control the causes of stress. One tweak that might help is when and how you use technology.
In the APA survey, 18 percent of Americans point to technology as a very or somewhat significant source of stress. And for people who admit to constantly checking their e-mail, text messages, or social media accounts, stress levels are even higher: 44 percent of them say they feel more disconnected from friends and family compared with 25 percent of people who aren’t tethered to their phones.
And 65 percent of those surveyed agree that disconnecting from their devices — doing a digital detox — is good for their health, though only 28 percent say they manage to actually unplug. One way to decrease tech stress is to stow your phone for short periods, whether while at the dinner table, during the weekend, or after a certain hour in the evening.
When it comes to other stressors, “it’s tempting to try to avoid whatever stresses you out,” says Gupta. “But it’s more beneficial to learn coping skills and tools for managing stress, like problem-solving, time management, and mindfulness.”
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- 2017 Stress in America Survey: The State of Our Nation. American Psychological Association. November 1, 2017.
- Stress in America report. American Psychological Association. October 24, 2007.
- The Workplace and Health. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. July 2016.