Unexpected mood swings. Quick to anger. Screaming at a loved one. If you’ve had any of these experiences lately, you’re far from alone.
In August, when the American Psychological Association surveyed 3,409 adults about their stress, half of the respondents reported that it had negatively affected their behavior.
The results of the annual, nationally representative poll are no surprise. Many Americans are enduring the kind of suffering that feels unimaginable until it’s reality, and the effects of the on people’s physical, mental, and financial well-being are profound. More than three quarters said COVID-19 was a significant source of stress in their life.
Yet multiple crises compound that strain, according to the report. The pandemic, in combination with anxiety about racial discrimination, healthcare, climate change, the presidential election, and the future of the country, has created the conditions for a long-lasting mental health crisis.
Adult members of Gen Z, who are between the ages of 18 and 23, expressed the highest level of stress compared to adults of other generations. They face an uncertain future yet have little of the life experience, perspective, financial means, and community support essential for navigating a disaster of this scale.
Regardless of age, the cumulative effect of experiencing so many stressors at once is “pushing people to the breaking point,” says Dr. Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and senior director, health care innovation at the APA.
There are ways to cope with these extraordinary circumstances, says Dr. Wright. That includes practicing acceptance of the fact that the current moment is inherently stressful. No “magic bullet” will make our worries disappear. Instead, we can take each day at a time, exerting control over things within our power to change, like sleep, diet, exercise, meditation, prayer, and time with friends and family.
However, by reporting on how deeply Americans are affected by the stress of larger political and social issues, the APA’s new research highlights what we cannot quickly alter: America’s broken institutions and failed leadership.
Without a coordinated federal response to COVID-19, the death toll continues to rise. Months after federal unemployment payments expired, leaving many Americans destitute, Senate Republicans still refuse to pass a stimulus bill large enough to help people survive the pandemic. An estimated 14.6 million people lost insurance coverage during the pandemic because it was tied to their employment. The president has sowed doubt about the election results, and previously hedged when asked if he’d commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose.
Americans haven’t felt this intensity of stress since the 2008 recession, according to the APA’s research. After that period, stress levels held steady or decreased annually until 2020. Now, three quarters of adults said the country’s future is a major source of anxiety, a significant increase compared to last year, when two-thirds of respondents felt the same way. Seventy-one percent said this is the “lowest point” in the nation’s history they can remember.
Coping skills and self-care will never be enough to ease these monumental burdens.
“This current situation has really laid bare the importance of leadership and the importance of access to resources, both of which we’re lacking at the moment,” says Dr. Wright.
While President Trump’s ardent supporters may admire his handling of the pandemic, the polling site FiveThirtyEight shows that nearly 60 percent of Americans disapprove of his response. This week that included yet another attack on Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the county’s top infection disease expert.
Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of both Democrats and Republicans surveyed by the APA in July, for a monthly poll, said the national mood of uncertainty caused them stress.
Even if that anxiety abates somewhat following a decisive, fair election, nearly every major policy that affects critical issues like COVID-19, healthcare, unemployment, climate change, and racial justice is failing Americans. Only a dramatic course correction can deliver the stability and certainty people need, along with policies that improve their lives, including guaranteed access to quality healthcare and a stronger safety net that doesn’t force Americans to choose between electricity and food.
“Until systematic things change, it’s going to continue to be this way,” Dr. Wright says of the stress currently dominating people’s lives.
One antidote to this existential dread is to participate, she says. Vote, volunteer, find ways to contribute. Participating can function like a coping skill because giving back restores a feeling of agency, reduces stress, and can even release feel-good endorphins. Yet this practice — particularly in the form of voting — is how people can insist on a different future, and hold politicians at every level accountable for delivering on their promises. Participation is what makes a different, better future possible.