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U.S. Leads in the Worldwide Anxiety Epidemic

Gallup reports worldwide negative experience is at a record high.

 Photo by JESHOOTS on Unsplash
The U.S. leads the world in stress levels.
Source: Photo by JESHOOTS on Unsplash

Again in 2019, the Gallup World Emotions Report shows a rise in stress and worry. In fact, worldwide stress levels have reached a new record, with the U.S. leading with some of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the negative experience index remains at a record high again this year, but worry and sadness are also increasing.

Gallup describes their annual Global Emotions Report as “the current snapshot of people’s positive and negative daily experiences.” They collected interviews with more than 151,000 adults in greater than 140 countries in 2018. The index is meant to equip “global leaders with insights into the health of their societies that they cannot gather from economic measures alone.” Those insights are not encouraging.

Worldwide, 35 percent of people said they were stressed, and 35 percent said that they experienced worry the day before they were questioned. Greece and the U.S. lead the world in adult stress levels at 59 percent percent and 55 percent respectively, a difference the report considers statistically the same.

This means that despite a growing American economy, adults in the U.S. are more worried, stressed, and angry. These rates of stress and worry (45 percent) are at a high when compared to polls over the last 12 years, and anger is at its highest level since 2006 (22 percent). The percentage of Americans who experienced stress was 20 points higher than the global average.

It comes as no surprise that younger Americans are having the hardest time. About 65 percent of people between 15 and 49 reported stress and 51 percent reported worry. But it is of particular note that the youngest Americans were the most angry, with a rate of 32 percent.

Why Are We More Stressed and Angry?

The survey does not clearly delineate the specific reasons for the increase in stress, but we know from similar research done by the American Psychological Association in the U.S. that many people are bothered by what they are seeing in the news. The impact of ever-present, frightening and personalized newsfeeds can not be helping. Are you afraid your child will be kidnapped, even though statistically this is extremely unlikely? AI bots designed to show you what you click on will make sure stories about child abduction appear on your social media.

The APA has also reported that Americans are increasingly stressed about the future of the nation. It is not unlikely that stress about the future of their country and the world is a driver in many other countries as well.

Workplace stress is also at a high in the U.S. and has been attributed to factors like leadership change, one’s boss, and uncertainty about the future.

In the U.S. structural and policy factors impact mothers in particular. “The United States is an outlier among Western Industrialized countries for its lack of support for working mothers,” wrote sociologist Dr. Caitlyn Collins.

And despite urging the psychological community to focus on self-compassion, the culture of criticism that holds us to impossible standards of perfection is not letting up. It doesn't take much for us to find ourselves the target of a "call-out" in person or online.

Kids Are Increasingly Stressed

The Gallup poll interviewed adults, but children have rising levels of stress and anxiety as well. Current estimates put the rates of adolescent anxiety at 32 percent in the U.S. An educational environment that increasingly focuses on evaluation over exploration puts our kids in a situation guaranteed to provoke stress from early ages.

What Can We Do?

The idea of finding a solution to the worldwide epidemic of anxiety is daunting. Solutions would require sweeping changes in policy, the behavior of leaders, education, and cultural mindsets. But I am a physician, and doctors don't accept daunting.

My question is always this: What can we do now? There are many mindfulness and self-compassion practices that can help us, though this can add to stress by adding one more thing to do.

  1. One idea is to use a guided imagery as you fall asleep, integrating the practice of self-compassion seamlessly into your schedule and improving your sleep.
  2. Another is a simple method that helps us practice mindfulness regularly, momentarily, under pressure, to move into our calm and connected selves.
  3. We can also help each other. Anxiety is an epidemic because it is contagious, passing from mind to mind by language. But comfort can spread just as quickly. Now that neuroscience has revealed how “the rhythms of brainwaves between two people taking part in a conversation begin to match each other,” we can help each other by sharing reminders that we are all in this together and can figure it out.
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