What role does stress play in your life? Whether it leads you through your days or is merely bubbling constantly in the background, this byproduct of our busy lives is something we all have to cope with.
No matter what job you have, what your home life looks like, or how financially stable you are, agita is a fact of life. That person you think is never bothered by anything? Who never gets worried? They just might be hiding the greatest burden.
More than half of us report feeling “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension” during the day. This makes the United States one of the most stressed countries in the world. In fact, we feel the pressure about 20% more than the global average.
Yes, stress is an unavoidable symptom of being human, but it’s still just an emotion. As with our other emotions, our response to stress is what counts. Epictetus, the famed Greek philosopher, aptly noted that, “People are disturbed not by a thing, but by their perception of a thing.” If we can’t change our circumstances, we can change how we experience them. We can choose to respond by putting our health first.
Why are we stressed?
Since 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) has conducted an annual review of stress in America. They look at the sources of our stress and what’s worrying us today. I think you’ll find the significant sources of stress reported very familiar. They are:
inflation - 83%
the future of the nation - 76%
violence and crime - 75%
mass shootings - 73%
health care - 70%
the economy - 69%
the current political climate - 66%
money - 66%
After reading these statistics, we can’t be surprised that a third of adults identify as “overwhelmed” by stress on most days. Anxiety and worry rob us of our ability to live well and have the power to diminish our physical, cognitive, and emotional health in a big way.
The impact of stress
More than three-quarters of Americans say they’ve felt the health impacts of stress in the last month. The symptoms range from minor annoyances, like headaches and temporary fatigue, to chronic, even fatal health conditions.
Stress is a force capable of wreaking debilitating havoc on your body, but it can do just as much damage to your heart and mind. When we’re unsettled, we respond to situations differently than we normally would. Nearly half of adults say their behavior is negatively affected by stress. Maybe they feel sadder, more anxious, or have less patience.
In extreme cases, the impact can be so debilitating someone might have no will to function at all. Unfortunately, 27% of American adults feel this way most days. That number jumps to 46% of those under 35 and 56% of Black adults under 35.
According to the APA study, living in a perpetual state of worry makes us forgetful, lessens our ability to concentrate, prevents us from making decisions, causes us to feel nervous or anxious, and can spur depression.
Of course, no one ever wants to feel this way. Without relief from this constant negative stimulus, there can be lifelong consequences. The likelihood of developing dementia and lower cognitive functioning in your senior years is significantly increased.
Is this really our fate? A student recently stopped by my office to ask a question. I’d noticed during class that he always seems relaxed and at ease, even as others around him may be tense or high-strung. I couldn’t help but ask him about his demeanor and if he ever feels stressed. He replied that he doesn’t. I absolutely loved his answer.
He said that when the pressure starts to build in his life, he responds by considering how fortunate he is, knowing there are others dealing with worse situations. Rather than surrendering to stress, he focuses on gratitude to find peace and grounding.
This refreshing perspective gave me hope. Yes, stress is an unavoidable part of life, but it doesn’t have to become your life.