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Americans are besieged by stress, poll finds

Concerns over nuclear war and inflation — following two years of a pandemic — have Americans more stressed than ever.
Roman Shyshkin, Denys Labza and Roman Zhenzhirov, all originally from Ukraine, watch President Joe Biden State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on March 1, 2022, in Hollywood, Fla.
Roman Shyshkin, Denys Labza and Roman Zhenzhirov, all originally from Ukraine, watch President Joe Biden's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on March 1 in Hollywood, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Financial woes, coupled with a barrage of horrifying scenes from Ukraine as Russia continues its invasion, have pushed a majority of Americans to unprecedented levels of stress, according to a new report from the American Psychological Association.

The association's annual "Stress in America" poll, published Thursday, found that U.S. adults — already weary from two years of the Covid-19 pandemic — are now overwhelmingly troubled by inflation and the war in Ukraine.

According to the results, 87 percent of those surveyed cited rising costs of everyday items, such as groceries and gas, as a "significant source of stress."

The same high percentage said their mental health was greatly affected by what has felt like a "constant stream of crises without a break over the last two years." And 84 percent said the Russian invasion of Ukraine is "terrifying to watch."

The shared feeling of stress among so many Americans was "startling," said Lynn Bufka, a clinical psychologist and the APA's associate chief for practice transformation. While many people can feel stress, she said, they often cite different political or social reasons as the source.

"We don't usually see 80 percent of people telling us that a particular stressor is stressful for that many individuals," Bufka said.

The poll surveyed a nationally representative group of 3,012 U.S. adults. It was initially conducted in mid-February, just ahead of the two-year anniversary of the start of the pandemic. At that time, respondents were overwhelmingly concerned about finances, and particularly stressed about inflation.

Sixty-five percent said they were stressed about money and the economy — the highest percentage recorded since 2015.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

Americans were "already in an overwhelmed and depleted place," said Lindsey McKernan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. The invasion, she said, was a "new threat to our safety."

In order to get the most accurate picture of stress in America, the researchers set out to do a second poll, with questions specific to Russia and Ukraine. The second round of polling, conducted March 1 through 3, included 2,051 adults.

Eighty percent of respondents said they were concerned about potential retaliation from Russia, either through cyberattacks or nuclear threats. And 69 percent said they feared they were witnessing the beginning stages of what could be World War III.

Beyond pinpointing the sources of stress for Americans, the poll also delved into how that stress impacted their physical health. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said they tried to cope with pandemic stress by drinking more alcohol. And 58 percent had undesired weight fluctuations, either gaining or losing more weight than they'd wanted.

Parents are 'maxed out'

Parents and caregivers, in particular, have been hit hard by stress in the past year, the APA poll found. Parents are not only worried for themselves; they are overly concerned for the future of their children.

More than 70 percent of parents said they were fearful that the pandemic has impacted kids' social, academic and emotional development. And 68 percent said they were concerned about children's cognitive and physical development.

"This is a particularly difficult time for parents right now," Bufka said. They are "maxed out, overwhelmed and dealing with their own stuff."

Among parents of teenagers, 65 percent said they felt their children could have benefited from seeing a counselor or other mental health professional throughout the pandemic.

"As parents, our job is to try to get these little people to healthy adults and give them the skills they need to move forward," Bufka said. "We are in uncharted territory about how to do that."

Both Bufka and McKernan said they hoped that despite the pressure, people remember that they are not alone.

"We all want to have a society where we feel safe and comfortable," Bufka said. "I may not agree with another parent in terms of their stance on masks or no masks, but I do agree with this parent that they are concerned about the well-being of their kids, as am I." 

McKernan agreed.

"Stress can feel really isolating," she said. "But this is one thing that is being experienced by most everybody."

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