February 7, 2013
(USA TODAY) -- Stress levels for Americans have taken a decidedly downward turn across the USA -- except for young adults, whose stress is higher than the national norm, a survey reports today.
Those ages 18-33 -- the Millennial generation -- are plenty stressed, and it's not letting up: 39% say their stress has increased in the past year; 52% say it's kept them awake at night in the past month. And more than any other age group, they report being told by a health care provider that they have either depression or an anxiety disorder.
The online survey of 2,020 U.S. adults 18 and older was done for the American Psychological Association, which has been taking the stress pulse of Americans since 2007.
Average U.S. stress for 2012 is 4.9 on a 10-point scale, where 1 is "little or no stress" and 10 is "a great deal of stress." But for Millennials, it's 5.4.
"Younger people do tend to be more stressed than older people. It may be they are more willing to admit to it. It may be a phase of life. They just don't know where they're going in life," says Mike Hais of Arcadia, Calif., a market researcher and co-author of the 2011 book, Millennial Momentum.
But for this group, there is more cause for worry.
"Millennials are growing up at a tough time. They were sheltered in many ways, with a lot of high expectations for what they should achieve. Even though in most instances it's not their fault -- the economy collapsed just as many of them were getting out of college and coming of age -- that does lead to a greater sense of stress," he says.
Overall, 20% of Americans report extreme stress, down from 24% in 2010. Also on the decline are unhealthy coping behaviors. Since 2008, eating to manage stress dropped from 34% to 25% in 2012. And drinking alcohol as a stress reliever dipped from 18% to 13%.
Among other findings:
35% of all ages say stress rose in the past year.
60% have tried to reduce stress in the past five years; 53% are still trying.
Top stressors are money (69%), work (65%) and the economy (61%).
Millennials are most stressed about work and money, and news on the job front doesn't help, suggests Matthew Faraci of Generation Opportunity, a Millennial advocacy group.
January statistics show unemployment among 18- to 29-year-olds at 13%, and as many as 1.7 million aren't even counted because they have given up looking. "For young people, the jobs picture has been persistently bleak," Faraci says.
Elizabeth Solomon of San Francisco works as a freelance consultant and is temporarily staying with her mother in Northampton, Mass. Solomon, 31, who was not part of the survey, says her stress is mostly about her financial future. She owes $150,000 in student loans; last year, she completed two master's degrees, in counseling psychology and organizational psychology.
"You get stuck in this middle ground," she says. "You're highly educated and have a significant amount of student loan debt, and it's hard to find a place in the job market."
Kelly Wiggen, 23, of Champaign, Ill., was among those surveyed. A second-year veterinary graduate student at the University of Illinois, she says she's "definitely stressed." And she says her stress increased in 2012.
"As soon as I got to vet school, the stress skyrocketed," she says.
Stress can lead to other problems, says clinical psychologist Norman Anderson, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based psychological association.
"Stress is a risk factor for both depression and anxiety," he says. "We don't have data on the specific causes of depression and anxiety in this sample, but it does make sense scientifically that the Millennials who report higher levels of stress in their lives are also reporting higher levels of depression and anxiety."
The survey finds that 19% of Millennials have been diagnosed with depression, and 12% with anxiety disorders, higher percentages than reported by other generations.
"There is a greater awareness of mental-health services, more medications, and perhaps more self-awareness of feelings that might be receptive to some sort of treatment," says Lisa Colpe, an epidemiologist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md.
Ronald Kessler of Harvard Medical School in Boston, who has studied the prevalence of mental disorders in the USA, says it is difficult to know whether young people are really more troubled today, because few surveys in the past looked closely at depression and anxiety disorders.
"There is not a lot of evidence of true prevalence having gone up," he says. And today's doctors are more willing to discuss mental health. "Anybody who has anxiety or depression today would be more likely to be told they have it than if they went to a doctor 20 years ago."
To cope with stress, Millennials are more likely to report sedentary behaviors, such as eating, playing video games or surfing the Internet. But most common is listening to music, cited by 59%; 51% exercise or walk, about the national average.
"They also showed the highest level of spending time with friends and family as a way of coping with stress, which is very good," Anderson says. Forty-six percent cited that, vs. a national average of 39%.
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