The American Psychological Association (APA) has released its latest “Stress in America” report, with some good news to report. Overall, average stress levels in the US are trending downward.
On a 10-point scale, with 1 being “little or no stress” and 10 being “a great deal of stress,” the average stress level was 4.9 in 2014, compared to over 6 in 2007.1 That being said, many are still reporting high levels of stress, especially when it comes to one major factor: money.
Money and Financial Pressures Are Stressing Americans Out
Money topped the list of stressors to Americans, beating out work, family responsibilities, and health concerns. Close to three-quarters of Americans (72 percent) said they feel stressed about money at least some of the time, and close to one-quarter (22 percent) said they experience extreme stress about money.
In the last year, most Americans have taken steps to cut back on their expenses, including using coupons, cooking more at home, and cutting back on non-essentials. Despite these steps, 54 percent of Americans say they have “just enough” or “not enough” money to make ends meet at the end of the month.
What’s more, 32 percent of Americans said their lack of money prevents them from living a healthy lifestyle, while one in five have skipped (or considered skipping) needed doctor’s visits due to financial concerns.
It’s a vicious cycle, because both stress and financial pressure can take a toll on your health, which in turn may create more stress and money trouble. According to the APA report:
“These findings stand against a backdrop of research that shows the profound effects of stress on health status and longevity. Research also shows that financial struggles strain individuals’ cognitive abilities, which could lead to poor decision-making and may perpetuate their unfavorable financial and health situations.”
Health Care Costs Are a Leading Source of Financial Stress
“Even though aspects of the U.S. economy continue to improve, some Americans are squeezed by sharp increases in health care costs and the cost of living,” the report noted. Overall, 38 percent of Americans said paying for out-of-pocket health care costs is a somewhat or very significant source of stress.
Parents and younger people (Generation Xers) report even higher levels of stress due to health care costs, as do those who make $50,000 a year or less (the study’s definition of lower income).
America spends 2.5 times more on health care per capita than any other developed nation, quickly approaching $3 trillion every year. With this kind of expenditure, you would expect our citizens to be the healthiest in the world, but this is not the case. In fact, the US ranks dead last in quality of care—Americans are sicker and live shorter lives than people in most other industrialized nations.
Meanwhile, those living in lower-income households report higher stress levels than those living in higher-income households, and they’re nearly twice as likely to say a lack of money prevents them from living a healthy lifestyle.
Case in point, low-income families often rely on coupons to stretch tight food budgets. But the vast majority of coupons are for processed food—not fresh produce, organic foods or local foods.
One study found that most grocery store coupons slice the cost of junk food and sugary drinks, but relatively few discount high-quality meats, dairy, or fresh fruits and vegetables.
The majority of the coupons are for processed foods because those are the stores’ most profitable products, so they make deals with manufacturers to promote them.
If the poorest families are the most frequent coupon users, then it makes sense they would also have the worst diets and most health problems—and indeed, that is what the research shows. The healthiest states in the union are also the wealthiest, and nearly all of the nation’s least healthy states have the lowest per capita income.
Likely not coincidentally, this population, along with being more stressed, is also more likely to engage in sedentary or unhealthy behaviors to manage their stress (such as watching TV for more than two hours a day, surfing the internet, eating, drinking alcohol or smoking).
Also at particular risk are women of all income levels who, according to the APA report, “consistently report high levels of overall stress and unhealthy behaviors to manage stress, also report high levels of stress about money.”
Is Too Much Stress Taking a Toll on Your Health?
The documentary “Stress: Portrait of a Killer,” illustrates how prolonged exposure to stress can ruin your health in a multitude of ways. Science has established that stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, and it can also lead to weight gain—of the worst kind.
Stress-induced weight gain typically involves an increase in belly fat, which is the most dangerous fat for your body to accumulate and increase your cardiovascular risk. Stress alters the way fat is deposited because of the specific hormones and other chemicals your body produces when you’re stressed. Prolonged stress can also damage your brain cells and make you lose the capacity to remember things. The brain cells of stressed rats are dramatically smaller, especially in the area of their hippocampus, which is the seat of learning and memory.
Stress disrupts your neuroendocrine and immune systems and appears to trigger a degenerative process in your brain that can result in Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, when you’re stressed, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol, which prepare your body to fight or flee the stressful event.
When stress becomes chronic, however, your immune system becomes less sensitive to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control.
According to award-winning neurobiologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky, the following are the most common health conditions that are caused by or worsened by stress:
Cardiovascular disease, Hypertension,,Depression,Anxiety, Sexual dysfunction, Infertility and irregular cycles, Frequent colds, Insomnia and fatigue, Trouble concentrating, Memory loss, Appetite changes, Digestive problems and dysbiosis.
Emotional Support May Help You Manage Your Stress
You are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of stress if you feel like you have no control, no way out, feel like things are getting worse, and have little social support. Indeed, the APA report found that “those feeling the weight of money-related stress are able to cope and manage their stress in healthier ways when they say they have emotional support.”
The disparities were quite large. For instance, 43 percent of those without emotional support said their stress had increased in the past year compared to just 26 percent of those with emotional support. The problem is that not everyone has emotional support at the ready. APA noted:
“Survey findings show that Americans who say they have emotional support — specifically, that they have someone they can ask for emotional support if they need it, such as family and friends — report lower stress levels and better related outcomes than those without emotional support.
But finding that support when you need it can be difficult: One in five Americans (21 percent) say they have no one to rely on for emotional support. A similar percentage of Americans (18 percent) say money is a taboo subject in their family and more than one-third (36 percent) say that talking about money makes them uncomfortable.”
If you don’t have a friend or family member to confide in, consider joining a local support group or even an online forum. You can also seek professional support as well as use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to address existing emotional scars — traumas that can adversely affect your health. Chronic stress is akin to emotional scarring in that it may also cause ongoing damage to your cells.
How to Use the Emotional Freedom Technique for Stress Relief and Goal Setting
Energy psychology techniques such as EFT can be very effective for reducing anxiety by correcting the bioelectrical short-circuiting that causes your body’s reactions—without adverse effects. You can think of EFT as a tool for “reprogramming” your circuitry, and it works on both real and imagined stressors. EFT is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture for more than 5,000 years to treat physical and emotional ailments, but without the invasiveness of needles.
Following a 2012 review in the American Psychological Association’s journal Review of General Psychology, EFT has actually met the criteria for evidence-based treatments set by the APA for a number of conditions. Recent research has shown that EFT significantly increases positive emotions, such as hope and enjoyment, and decreases negative emotional states, including anxiety.
EFT is particularly effective for treating stress and anxiety because it specifically targets your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of your brain that help you decide whether or not something is a threat. In addition to stress relief, you can use EFT for setting goals and sticking to them. If you are seriously stressed about money, setting goals related to your financial future might be especially pertinent – and easier to achieve when combined with EFT.
Take Control of Your Stress
There are many different stress-reduction techniques. Regardless of the source of your stress, whether it be money, family troubles, or something different entirely, the key is to find out what works best for you, and stick to a daily stress-reduction program. One key strategy is to make sure you get adequate sleep, as sleep deprivation dramatically impairs your body’s ability to handle stress. Besides that, other stress-management approaches include:
Regular physical activity, Meditation (Taking even 10 minutes to sit quietly, such as during work breaks, can help decrease your feelings of stress and anxiety)
Mindfulness training and breath work, Yoga (Health benefits from regular yoga practice have been shown to decrease stress, improve sleep, and immune function, and reduce food cravings, among other things) Social connectedness, Laughter and levity, Spend time in nature, Music, Have more fun, and EFT: Emotional Freedom Technique