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Are you stressed out? Tell us about it

A survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 49 percent of respondents said they'd had a major stressful event or experience in the past year.
A survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 49 percent of respondents said they'd had a major stressful event or experience in the past year. Renu Parkhi/Flickr Creative Commons

This morning, NPR kicked off a series of stories called "Stressed Out."

The series - based on a poll conducted this spring by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health – examines the amount of toxic stress Americans are facing.

It found that almost half of those surveyed – 49 percent – said they'd had a major stressful event or experience in the past year. Of those people, 43 percent said a health-related issue – illness and disease, or the death of a loved one – was the most stressful experience of the past year.

The survey also looked at the 26 percent of respondents who have experienced a great deal of stress in the past month. Among that group, health conditions are a major source of stress: 60 percent of those in poor health report high levels of stress, and 45 percent of people with a disability are under a lot of stress.

People burdened by a great dealt of stress in the past month said it affects their family life, health, work life and social life. This stress had other health effects: People reported less sleep, eating less, and exercising less.

Many of you can probably identify with the results of the survey, and with the stories of people like Bobby Burgess, whom NPR profiled. He’s a 30-year-old single father of three in Fairbanks, Alaska.

He said his first-ever anxiety attack was on the day of his 10-year-old's laser-tag birthday party:

"And [I] realized kind of at the last minute that morning that I didn't have a cake… So I made one at the last minute. But then right before I left for the party, I just had an elevated heart rate and I was just uncontrollably emotional, you know. Basically, I just sat down, let it pass, kind of got hold of myself, and then made it to the party 15 minutes late."

Why focus on stress? Reporters Richard Knox and Patti Neighmond explain that our ability to juggle small and large stressors is like the bandwidth on your Internet connection. They quote Princeton University psychologist Eldar Shafir:

"We have very limited bandwidth," Shafir says. "There's only so much you can attend to at any one time."

When people are juggling complicated situations, Shafir says, "It's like driving on a stormy night. You're focused completely on the thing that's capturing your attention right now, and other things get neglected."

If stress is chronic, that neglect can be costly over time, compromising your health, your financial well-being, your relationships. So it's important to understand this big thing we call stress and what it's doing to us.

Southern Californians, we want to hear from you: What has been your major cause of stress in the past month or the past year? How does that stress affect you  – and your family, work, and social life? How do you deal with that stress?

Tell us about it in the comments section or e-mail us at Impatient@scpr.org. Your experiences could inform future reporting.

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