Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended people's lives, Americans were already feeling more stressed than they did a generation ago. Now, new research finds that no group is feeling the impact of additional stress more than middle-aged people.
The study found that most age groups reported an increase of 2% more daily stress in 2012 than they did in 1995. But middle-aged folks — 45- to 64-year-olds — had about 19% more daily stress than did their counterparts from the 1990s.
"If you feel like daily life is getting more stressful, it's true," said study author David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University.
"People feel like life is getting more stressful, and that there are more irritations and challenges, and that was even before the pandemic. While all adults said life was a little bit more stressful, life seems more stressful for adults in the middle," Almeida said.
In fact, the researchers said that reported stress adds up to about a week of additional stressed time each year. In middle-aged people, the extra stress translates to 64 more days of stress a year.
The study included data from almost 1,500 adults in 1995 and nearly 800 different adults in 2012. The goal was to study two groups who were the same age at the time the data was collected but were born in different decades. They were interviewed about stress in their lives for eight days in a row.
The volunteers were asked about stressful experiences throughout the previous 24 hours. For example, did they have any arguments with family or friends? Were they feeling overwhelmed at home or work? They were also asked about their stress levels, and whether stress was impacting different areas of their lives.
So, where is all this extra stress coming from?
Almeida said that a faster pace of life, coupled with information overload, are likely culprits. Middle-aged folks may be helping adult children more now than they did in the 1990s. They may also be helping aging parents who are living longer.
People in this age group have also dealt with a lot of economic uncertainty, having lived through booms and busts in the stock market, as well as the 2008 economic crash. Almeida also explained that many structural supports, such as employer-based pension plans, have changed or vanished.
Dr. Robert Roca, chair of the American Psychiatry Association's Council on Geriatric Psychiatry, pointed out that the authors could speculate on additional stressors, but he wondered if the perspectives of the people doing the interviews might have influenced the answers. And he said they interviewed people over a little more than a week, but if they had questioned them at eight days spread throughout the year, would the findings still be the same?
Still, Roca said, "This is a provocative finding, and it seems to align with more recent data on who's at risk for suicide." Suicide rates have gone up 35% since 1999, and the highest rates are in middle-aged Americans, a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.
"There seems to be a phenomenon here that merits more study," Roca said.
Whatever the reasons for your stress and no matter your age, it's a good idea to take steps to reduce your stress levels, the experts said.
"Try to organize the stressors you can have control over. If you're worried about coronavirus, wash your hands regularly and practice social distancing," Almeida suggested.
He said a healthy diet and exercise both ease stress. "When people are experiencing stress, our bodies are designed to move and engage. A good walk seems refreshing because that's what your body wants to do," Almeida said.
Both Almeida and Roca agreed that information overload from the 24-hour news cycle and the internet can increase stress. Both suggested staying informed and checking in with trusted sources of information for a little while.
"Once you've heard the facts, then turn it off and turn on something like stand-up comedy or anything else that makes you feel better. You don't need to watch the news stories that detail personal tragedies," Roca said.
It's important to name your emotions and talk about them, Roca said. "Speak with a trusted confidante — a friend or spiritual adviser — or a psychiatrist or other psychological professional. The situation you're in may not be easily changed, but it can be ameliorated when you give voice to it. And a sympathetic listener or ally may have a different view on how to improve things. Mobilizing hope is critical," he said.
Almeida added it's important to remember that "stress can connect you to other people. The people who give us stress are also usually the ones who give support and meaning to our lives."
The study was published May 7 in the journal American Psychologist.