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, says a survey to be released Thursday.
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 stress has 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, conducted in August by Harris Interactive for the American Psychological Association, has been taking the stress pulse of Americans since 2007.
On a 10-point scale, where 1 means “little or no stress” and 10 means “a great deal of stress,” the 2012 average is 4.9. But for Millennials, it’s 5.4.
“Younger people do tend to be more stressed than older people do. 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 two books on that generation, including 2011’s Millennial Momentum.
But for this group, there is more cause for worry, Hais says.
“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. Individual failure is difficult to accept when confronted with a sense you’re an important person and expected to 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, the survey finds that 20% of Americans report extreme stress, which is an 8, 9 or 10 on the stress scale. Still, the extreme-stress report has declined since 2010, when the number was 24%. 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%.
“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 told they have depression, compared with 14% of Generation Xers (ages 34-47); 12% of Baby Boomers (ages 48-66) and 11% of those ages 67 and older. And more Millennials than other generations have been told they have an anxiety disorder: 12% of the youngest, compared with 8% of Gen X, 7% of Boomers and 4% of the oldest.
“There is a greater awareness of mental-health services available, many more medications than there used to be for this, and perhaps more self-awareness in terms 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. “All those have combined to create a different picture than maybe what we’ve seen decades ago.”
To cope with stress, Millennials are more likely to report sedentary behaviors, such as eating (36%) or playing video games or surfing the Internet (41%), the survey finds. But the most common coping mechanism is listening to music, cited by 59% of young adults; 51% exercise or walk, about the same as the national average (52%).
“They also showed the highest level (compared with other generations) of spending time with friends and family as a way of coping with stress, which is very good,” says Anderson. Forty-six percent cited that, compared with 35%-38% of the other groups and a national average of 39%.