Money, Work Are Top U.S. Stressors, Survey Finds

Stress and Suicide in Hard Times

For the third year running, money, work and the economy top Americans' list of stressors, according to a survey on stress released today (Nov. 9) by the American Psychological Association.

In the survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults and children, nearly three-quarters of the respondents report unhealthy stress levels in 2010, about the same as in 2009. Satisfaction with work-life balance drops from 42 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, stress over job stability is on the rise, from 44 percent of people experiencing job stability concerns in 2009 to 49 percent in 2010.

Parents may underestimate the impact of stress on their families, the survey results revealed. While 69 percent of parents say their stress has little or no impact on their children, 91 percent of kids ages 8 to 17 report that they can tell when their parents are stressed.

The Stress in America survey was conducted online in August by Harris Interactive. Participants were 1,134 American adults, including 100 parents of children ages 8 to 17. In addition to that national sample, the survey queried 987 additional parents and 1,136 children ages 8 to 17.

Economic woes

As in years past, money woes were a leading cause of stress, with 76 percent of Americans reporting money as a significant stressor. Work stress was cited as significant by 70 percent of adults, and the economy was a significant source of stress for 65 percent of respondents. All three responses have topped Americans' list of concerns since 2007, with the exception of the economy, which did not appear on the survey until 2008.

Stress crosses generational lines, but Gen Xers (ages 32 to 45) report the highest levels of stress, at an average of 5.8 on a scale of 1 to 10. People over age 65 are the least stressed, with an average stress level of 4.4, and are almost twice as likely as the general population to say their stress levels have gone down in the past five years.

Money is the most common source of stress for all generations except for the over-65 crowd, who are more likely to cite the economy as their major stressor.

Kids, weight and stress

The survey uncovered a link between stress and weight among both adults and children. One-third of the children in the survey reported being overweight. The overweight children were more likely to report that their parents were stressed (39 percent versus 30 percent for normal-weight children).

Overweight and obese kids were also more likely to experience health problems related to stress, the survey found:

  • 48 percent of overweight kids had trouble falling asleep, compared with 33 percent of normal-weight kids
  • 43 percent of overweight kids had headaches, compared with 28 percent of normal-weight kids.
  • 48 percent of overweight kids reported eating too much or too little, compared with 16 percent of normal-weight kids.
  • 22 percent of overweight kids reported getting angry or getting into fights, compared with 13 percent of normal-weight kids

Both kids and adults can get into a viscous cycle of weight gain and stress, said Katherine Nordal, the APA's director for professional practice. Stress has been shown to cause weight gain both due to biological factors and stress-related behaviors like overeating or lost sleep, she said. And being overweight or obese is an additional stressor that makes it less enjoyable to exercise.

Parental stress can affect children of any weight in a big way, the results showed. One-third of children surveyed believed their parents were often stressed or worried, and 86 percent said their parents' worries made the kids themselves sad. While only 8 percent of parents believed their children were highly stressed, one in five kids reported lots of worries in their lives.

"We've got parents that don't really appreciate that their children and teenagers are very quick to pick up on their parents' emotional distress," Nordal told LiveScience. "And besides picking up on it, those children themselves become very distressed."

Toll on health

Americans perceive stress as taking a big toll on their health, the survey found. Only 40 percent of respondents thought they were in good or excellent health, a number similar to the 44 percent who say their stress levels have increased in the past five years.

Two-fifths of adults reported eating poorly or overeating in response to stress in the past month, while 33 percent had skipped a meal because of stress. Over 40 percent had lain awake at night due to stress, while 45 percent experience irritability and 41 percent experienced fatigue.

Stress hit the unhealthy and obese harder, the survey found. Almost 30 percent of obese adults experienced high levels of stress, compared with 20 percent of normal weight adults. Those who rated their health as fair or poor had an average stress level of 6.2 compared to 4.9 for those who were in good or excellent health.

While 70 percent of Americans have the right information about how to improve their health and lower their stress levels, only 30 percent put that information into play, said Norman Anderson, the chief executive officer of the APA.

"I think most Americans have heard recommendations about stress and health repeatedly," Anderson told LiveScience. "But they're all worth repeating."

To manage stress, Anderson said, people should try to remove themselves from the stressful situation if possible. When that doesn't work, the solutions have to be internal, such as practicing relaxation techniques, exercising and prioritizing sleep. The key, Anderson said, is to tackle one manageable goal at a time.

"Willpower is a function of setting a goal, arranging the environment to accomplish that goal, and keeping that goal really simple so it' ssomething they can accomplish," Anderson said. "Once they do that, it builds confidence — or what some people call willpower."

The full report is online at

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.