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Stress in America: Life and Work Disrupted by the Pandemic

The national Stress in America Survey suggests a growing mental health crisis.

Key points

  • The American Psychological Association's 2020 Stress in America survey describes a growing mental health crisis
  • Two in every three adults felt more stressed because of the pandemic
  • The pandemic, the economy, job security, the health care and climate crises, racial violence, and uncertainty about the future were stressors for Americans
  • The teens and young adults of Generation Z fared the worst because their lives, education, plans for the future and social relationships were disrupted at a critical time
Source: Jeshoots/Pixabay

Each year, the American Psychological Association releases its annual survey of stress across the U.S. In the last year, Americans faced (and continue to face) multiple stressful events associated with COVID-19, including the death toll, the "long haulers," fears of exposure, the psychological effects of lockdown, and the financial and emotional consequences of the virus. Other major societal stressors include police shootings of unarmed black men and women, social and economic inequality, the climate crisis, inadequate healthcare, political division, threats to our democracy, an erosion of truth, and (as we move into Spring, 2021) mass shootings and continued gun violence.

Many of these crises are reflected in the 2020 Stress in America survey, which reports the country is experiencing increased stress, including the stress of uncertainty and worry about the future. These effects are strongest for certain groups, including the teenagers and young adults of Generation Z and African-Americans.

Multiple sources of stress

While vaccinations are providing a ray of hope, the extent of damage and psychological disruption caused by the virus is tremendous. Nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) said the coronavirus pandemic is a significant stressor for them, while 2 in 3 adults (67%) reported feeling more stressed as a result of the pandemic. The most common signs of stress were bodily tension, yelling at loved ones, mood swings and increased anger. In addition to the effects of the virus, more than 60 per cent of adults were worried about the cost of and access to healthcare, mass shootings, and climate change. About 40-50% report feeling stressed about increased rates of suicide, the opioid epidemic, sexual harassment or assault reports in the media and immigration. Almost two-thirds of Americans feel stressed by an uncertain future and 60% reported the number of issues America is dealing with is overwhelming.

Gen Z was the most stressed out

Generation Z adults (ages 18-23) reported the highest stress level of all groups and compared to previous years (around 6 out of 10). These young people are at a stage of life where they are motivated to explore, discover new knowledge and experiences, and build their future. Instead, they are faced with online learning, closed campuses, social isolation, and diminishing opportunities to find jobs and internships. About 2 in 3 of these young adults said the pandemic makes it impossible to plan for the future. Generation Z teens (ages 13 to 17) reported that their plans for the future have been disrupted by the pandemic. Many are stressed by school closings, shutdown of sports and clubs, and lack of motivation or ability for online learning.

Mental health declined

Stress has increased for all Americans, not only for Gen Z. About 20 per cent of American adults reported declines in mental health in the past year. About half of adults said they feel restless or fatigued. Half reported they felt so fatigued that they sat around without doing anything at some time during the past two weeks. In Gen Z, the proportion who felt restless or so tired they sat around and did nothing rose to about 3 out of 4. Just over 70 per cent reported symptoms of depression like concentration problems or feeling sad or lonely.

Physical health and relationships also suffered

The pandemic has also had a negative impact on the physical health and relationships of Gen Z adults. Close to 30 per cent reported worse health habits during the pandemic, including sleep disturbance (around 30%), eating unhealthy or changes in weight.

Nearly half of adults reported the pandemic had negative effects on their relationships, including less closeness with family, friends and community. Parents were more stressed by the pandemic and other factors than non-parents. Seven in 10 parents said family responsibilities were a significant source of stress. Many were faced with supervising online learning in addition to working and household responsibilities.

Financial and job stability was threatened

The economy and employment or business disruption was another significant source of stress for adults. More than 60 per cent reported the economy was a source of stress. Among working adults, more than half said that job stability caused them stress. Almost 70 per cent reported negative effects of the pandemic on their job. This included kess hours or pay, fear of pandemic exposure and juggling job and household responsibilities. Those with annual incomes of less than 50K were more likely to have been laid off. Nearly two/thirds of adults reported that money is a significant stressor, while just over half of Americans said the pandemic negatively impacted their finances.

Discrimination and racial violence was a stressor, particularly for Blacks

Racial discrimination was another significant source of stress. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to widescale nationwide protests. About 40 per cent of people of color, particularly African Americans, reported discrimination is a source of stress for them (48% Black vs. 43% Hispanic, 42% Native American, 41% Asian and 25% white).

Which groups suffered the most?

Particular groups that have been most affected by pandemic stress, besides Generation Z, include those who have lost loved ones, the elderly, healthcare workers, teachers, food service workers and other essential workers (like cleaners), many of whom do not have the luxury of staying home. Wisely, many of these groups are receiving priority for vaccination.

Despite all of these mounting stressors, 7 in 10 Americans said they felt hopeful about the future. We don't know if this reflects general optimism or anticipating a vaccine. There is also still a sense of empowerment in America with over 50% of Americans believing they could speak up and make a difference.

A growing mental health crisis

These findings suggest a growing mental health crisis, given the increase in need and the lack of affordability or access to mental health interventions, particularly psychotherapy. Gen Z seems to face the greatest challenges, because of missing out on the social and educational opportunities of in person school and college, but also because of diminished work opportunities and an uncertain future. Hope and a sense of empowerment still remain for many Americans, although the majority also feel overwhelmed and stressed by the current state of the nation.

How to manage your stress

Below are some simple steps you can take to deal with stress:

- Develop a regular stress-management practice like running, walking, working out, meditating, doing art, baking, or listening to music

- Cut down your exposure to traumatic events on the news. When a news program gets repetitive or shows violent scenes over and over again, switch it off

- Stay connected to friends and family or sources of community in whichever way you can.

- If your depression or severe anxiety persist, consider seeing a therapist.

- Look after your health by getting enough sleep, not abusing alcohol or marijuana, and eating healthy.

- Don't let discrimination or harassment take away your self-esteem. Turn to trusted people to help you decide how to handle the situation.

- Remember that this is an unusual time, and the future will present new opportunities.

- Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself when you feel self-critical. Try to set boundaries so you can have small or larger breaks to replenish your energy.

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