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A new poll reveals Americans are stressed out by inflation, violence and politics

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The amount of stress that people in this country feel keeps going up. That's according to a new poll by the American Psychological Association, which finds that a majority of American adults are stressed - about rising prices, violence, the political state of the country. Well, to tell us more about these findings, we're joined now by NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee. Hey, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, I mean, I guess these findings aren't all that surprising given everything that's happened the last couple years. But can you just tell us more? What did this survey find exactly?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah, you're right. They may not be - they aren't that surprising. But I will say that some of the details are really striking. So over 80% of adults surveyed said that inflation is a significant source of stress for them. Now, that's a huge majority. I spoke with psychologist Vaile Wright with the American Psychological Association. And she told me that it's really hard not to worry about rising prices these days.

VAILE WRIGHT: Because they hit us every day. They're hard to escape. And we're constantly reminded about how we're going to have to pay for groceries, how we're going to have to pay for gas, how we're going to pay for rent.

CHATTERJEE: And, you know, understandably, people with annual incomes of 50,000 or less were much more likely to be struggling with these than those with higher incomes. And the poll also found that there's widespread disillusionment about people in the government, worries over the racial climate, the political state of the country, gun violence. And over a quarter of the people surveyed - they are so stressed they can't even function.

CHANG: A quarter of people. That's kind of huge. What does that mean?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah.

CHANG: Not being able to function.

CHATTERJEE: So things like not being able to concentrate, you know, forgetfulness, struggling to make decisions because of stress. And 18- to 44-year-olds were more likely to report feeling this way. And overall about three-quarter of the respondents said that stress was negatively affecting their lives. Vaile Wright says 76% said that they'd experienced at least one stress-related health symptom.

WRIGHT: That included things like headaches, feeling nervous or anxious, feeling overwhelmed or worrying constantly. And we know that these types of symptoms, when they're unmanaged, can have negative physical and mental health consequences.

CHATTERJEE: You know, Ailsa, we tend to think of stress as, like, a mental thing, but it affects our entire physiology. And research shows that chronic stress can, in the long run, cause more infections, heart attacks, diseases like obesity and diabetes.

CHANG: Absolutely. I mean, I do think it's important that we're talking about this because this has been an especially difficult time for all of us, right?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah.

CHANG: Pandemic, war in Europe, inflation. What do you suggest we do to better manage our stress during this time?

CHATTERJEE: So I put that question to psychologist Elissa Epel at the University of California San Francisco. She has a new book coming out soon about managing stress. And she told me that it's important to actively try and stop dwelling on the future and things that are beyond our control. And, you know, as you and I - most people know that when we're stressed, we just try to muscle our way through our days, focusing on what needs to get done. But Epel says it's really important to check in with our emotions and acknowledge how we feel to let some of that worry go. And deep breathing is a really good way to do that.

ELISSA EPEL: Breathing is one of the most direct routes to reducing stress in our body and our mind. And so taking these short breathing breaks are actually critical to help us reduce burnout and get through a day.

CHANG: I'm sorry. I hear people talk all the time about deep breathing, but when I'm really stressed, slowing down is the last thing on my mind. But you're about to tell me this really works.

CHATTERJEE: It does. And research backs it up. And here's another tip from psychiatrist Jessi Gold.

JESSI GOLD: We really like to blow off sleep and think that it doesn't have this huge impact on us. But if we aren't sleeping, a lot of the other things are struggling, too.

CHATTERJEE: So Ailsa, breathe, and try to get a good night's sleep.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee. Thank you, Rhitu.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.