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Americans Just Broke a New Record for Stress and Anxiety

Why change and uncertainty make us nervous — and what we can do about it.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Since 2007, the American Psychological Association has published an annual survey of stress in America. In January 2017, for the first time in its 10-year history, the survey found a statistically significant increase in stress levels in the U.S. compared to the previous year. Americans certainly appear to be more stressed than ever. The most commonly shared explanation for why is the nation's extreme political polarization. Indeed, 57 percent of the more than 1,000 people surveyed for the study said the current political climate was a "very significant" or "somewhat significant" source of stress.

We may be continuing to experience the emotional fallout of the election in the form of hostility, mistrust, feelings of being under attack, and pervasive anxiety. It is no longer the case that the things that divide us are less than those that unite us as Americans. Today, we struggle with profound differences in values and definitions of who we are as a nation. And it’s not just us who are struggling with these issues, but Europe as well.

I hear stories every day of partners who constantly fight about politics, or of family members who no longer speak to each other because of differing political views. President Trump's style is to dig in and attack opponents, rather than emphasizing compromise and unity. While this strategy may be effective in some situations, it can exacerbate conflict, rather than resolve it. This style of confrontation may be trickling down to dinner tables and water coolers, creating increasing division and anger. And while liberals may be the most stressed at the moment, they're not the only ones.

According to Bloomberg News, “a full two-thirds of respondents to the survey said they are stressed out about the nation's future." That figure includes 76 percent of Democrats surveyed as well as 59 percent of Republicans. So there is something pervasive going on extending beyond political beliefs. According to one of the study’s authors, people are stressed by the fast pace of change and the uncertainty of the political climate—and unpredictability is always stressful to the human brain.

In a study conducted last year by researchers at University College, London, 45 participants played a computer game in which they turned over rocks that might have snakes under them. When a snake appeared, the player received a mildly painful electric shock to the hand. Over time, participants learned which rocks were most likely to have snakes, but then researchers changed the odds, leading to different levels of uncertainty. Results showed that when conditions were most uncertain—with a 50/50 chance of finding a snake each turn—participants were more stressed than when there was 0 percent or a 100 percent chance of finding a snake (and a shock).

Yes, even though the number of shocks was far greater in the 100 percent condition, participants experienced the uncertainty condition as more stressful. According to the lead author Archy de Berker:

“Our experiment allows us to draw conclusions about the effect of uncertainty on stress. It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won't. We saw exactly the same effects in our physiological measures—people sweat more, and their pupils get bigger when they are more uncertain.”

Our brains are like prediction machines that assess the relationships between events in our environment. Based on past experience and what we are currently experiencing, our brains make predictions about the likelihood of future harm and propel us to take action to prevent negative outcomes. If we don’t know what’s likely to happen next, we don’t know whether to take action, which actions to take, and how these might turn out. This can lead to a sense of helplessness or the feeling like we need to remain vigilantly on guard in case things suddenly change. This might be why so many of us are glued to the news every day.

How to De-stress

Following are a few tips to manage your stress. (For a more detailed plan, see my book The Stress-Proof Brain, which helps you change your reactions to stress and eliminate unhealthy responses like negative thinking, hostility, and avoidance.)

1. Limit time watching or listening to the news.

It’s important to stay informed, but there’s a difference between getting the information you need and becoming vigilantly obsessed. The news is presented in a dramatic way that creates anxiety (and attracts more viewers). All the spin can be infuriating, and yet there’s nothing we can do to stop it except to switch off the television after we know the events of the day.

2. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is an attitude toward living that involves acceptance of whatever is happening in the present moment, self-awareness, compassion, and acting with forethought, rather than reacting automatically. It is best learned by practicing some form of meditation, like focusing on your breath or senses. Many mindfulness apps can guide you to find inner calm amidst the chaos.

3. Focus on the parts of your life in which you have control.

You can’t control a lot of what happens across the country, but you can control important aspects of your own life, like how much effort you put into your work, your relationships, your health, parenting, or your community. Don’t devote so much energy into monitoring politics that you neglect to take care of yourself and the things that you most care about.

4. Find support and take action if you need to.

Sharing your feelings with other like-minded people can help you feel supported and understood, which calms your stress. It helps to know that you are not alone, and that others are going through the same things. If you feel it is personally important to take action to express your values or to defend the things that matter most to you, get together with others and make a plan of action that fits your values. There is more power in numbers, and taking action can counteract feelings of helplessness.

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and former professor in the Ph.D. program at the California School of Professional Psychology. She is an expert on stress, the brain, and mindfulness. She provides workshops, speaking engagements, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows and as an expert in national media. She also does in-person and long-distance coaching for executives and entrepreneurs. Her new book, The Stress-Proof Brain was released in 2017.

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American Psychological Association (2017) Stress in America: Coping With Change

Archy O. de Berker, Robb B. Rutledge, Christoph Mathys, Louise Marshall, Gemma F. Cross, Raymond J. Dolan
& Sven Bestmann (2016) Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans.Nature Communications, 7, 10996.

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