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Even before COVID-19, Americans were reporting more daily stress than in the past, study finds

“We thought that with the economic uncertainty, life might be more stressful for younger adults,” said researcher David Almedia. “But we didn’t see that. We saw more stress for people at mid-life.”

Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash
The data revealed that people in the 2010s reported having more daily stressors than did those in the 1990s.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, American adults were reporting more stress in their daily lives than their counterparts in the 1990s, according to a study published in the American Psychologist.

That was particularly true for middle-aged adults, the study found.

“On average, people reported about 2 percent more stressors in the 2010s compared to people in the past,” says David Almeida, a professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), in a released statement.  “That’s around an additional week of stress a year. But what really surprised us is that people at mid-life reported a lot more stressors, about 19 percent more stress in 2010 than in 1990. And that translates to 64 more days of stress a year.”

This study is interesting because it focuses not on how different generations experience the major life stressors that occur across adulthood (such as marriage, divorce, moving to a new home, job loss, the onset of a chronic illness), but on how they process the stream of life’s daily stressors.

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“Daily stressors are minor rather than major events and arise out of day-to-day living, such as work-related problems and caring for others, or unexpected occurrences that disrupt daily life, such as spousal arguments and malfunctioning computers,” Almeida and his colleagues explain in their paper.

“Because people are confronted with a myriad of such stressors day-in and day-out, … their effects aggregate over time to exert an equal if not greater impact on individual well-being than do major, but infrequent, life events,” the researchers add.

Two decades apart

For their study, the researchers analyzed data from the National Study of Daily Experiences (NSDE), which is an offshoot of the long-running Midlife in the United States study, started by the National Institute of Aging in the 1990s to examine “the influence of psychological and social factors on health … from early adulthood to later life.”

The NSDE participants were interviewed on the phone for eight consecutive days. During each interview, they were asked to report on any stressful experience from the previous 24 hours, including its level of severity and the risk they felt the experience posed to their finances and future. The participants also rated various aspects of their mood each day, such as how nervous, restless or sad they felt.

The researchers then compared the data from samples of two different “waves” of the NSDE: 1,499 people who participated in 1995-1996 and 782 who did so in 2012-2014. The participants’ ages ranged from 25 to 75, and middle-aged adults (those aged 45 to 64) made up 42 percent of each group.

The data revealed that people in the 2010s reported having more daily stressors than did those in the 1990s. In addition, they were 27 percent more likely to believe that their daily stress would negatively affect their finances and 17 percent more likely to believe it would pose a risk to their future.

“Overall, life has become more stressful,” the study’s authors concluded.

Hitting mid-life the hardest

Because the second wave of interviews had been conducted in the years immediately following the Great Recession, the researchers expected to find more reports of stress among those participants. They were a bit surprised, however, by the age group that appeared most affected.

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“We thought that with the economic uncertainty, life might be more stressful for younger adults,” says Almedia. “But we didn’t see that. We saw more stress for people at mid-life. And maybe that’s because they have children who are facing an uncertain job market while also responsible for their own parents. So it’s the generational squeeze that’s making stress more prevalent for people at mid-life.”

Another possible factor for that extra mid-life stress, Alemedia and his co-authors point out in their paper, is that after the economic downturn, many middle-aged people found themselves having “to learn new skills or face obsolescence.” In addition, over the past two decades new digital technologies have sped up the pace of life and made people available to others all the time — developments that have increased daily stress for everyone, but particularly for people who did not grow up with those technologies.

Technological advances have also made it difficult to tune out the news. “With people always on their smartphones, they have access to constant news and information that could be overwhelming,” says Almeida.

Limitations and implications

The study comes with caveats, of course. Most notably, the participants were mostly white (more than 85 percent) and fairly well educated (more than half had some college), so it’s unclear if the findings are applicable to the broader U.S. population.

Also, the study relies on data that may already be way out of date, particularly as we don’t know yet (and may not for a quite some time) what long-lasting effects the COVID-19 pandemic will have on Americans’ daily stress levels.

Still, the study’s findings are troubling. As Almeida and his colleagues point out, in the 1990s “the number of daily stressors were less frequent among each successively older age group,” and emotional well-being tended to increase with age.

That “relatively rosy picture of aging and emotional well-being” may no longer be true, however — at least for people at midlife.

“For middle-aged adults … daily life is more stressful, and particularly so for people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged,” the researchers write.

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“It is unclear whether the differences seen for middle-aged adults today will continue in the future as they evolve into older and older ages,” they add.

FMI:  You’ll find an abstract of the study on the American Psychologist’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.