Americans’ stress is spiking over inflation, war in Ukraine, survey finds

People walk along Wall Street near the New York Stock Exchange, in New York City. The stock market has been volatile as the war in Ukraine and high oil prices continues to worry investors. Americans’ stress about global uncertainty is high, according to a new survey. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Americans say that they feel more anxious about inflation, global uncertainty and the war in Ukraine than they have reported feeling about any other issue in recent years, according to a new survey released Thursday from the American Psychological Association.

“Over 80% of Americans said inflation and issues related to invasion of Ukraine are significant sources of stress,” says psychologist Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.

This is the highest number of people who have ever reported feeling stressed about any issue in the 15 year this survey has been conducted, she says.

“Typically, our highest levels of stress have been in the mid 60s, so hitting, for example, 87[%] for inflation as a source of stress is truly astounding,” she says.

The current financial and global stressors are playing out at a time when people already feel worn out by two years of the pandemic.

“It’s like being kicked while you’re down,” says Dr. Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University, who wasn’t involved with the report.

And the survey found that nearly two-thirds of respondents said their lives have been permanently changed by the pandemic, with Latinos and Asians significantly more likely to think this compared to Whites.

“The survey revealed widespread grief, sense of loss, continual hardships for vulnerable populations, including communities of color,” says Wright.

Two-thirds of respondents agreed that with each new coronavirus variant that emerges, they lose hope the pandemic would ever end. On the other hand, there was one bright note in responses about the pandemic: 71% of Americans say they’ve gotten better at prioritizing what is important to them during this crisis.

Concerns about money, and the economy were also high, with 65% of people saying they were stressed about these issues. The concerns were more likely to plague Latinos and Blacks compared to Whites and Asians.

A person in a store
People shop for groceries in a Manhattan store on Jan. 12, 2022 in New York City. Newly released data show that inflation reached a four-decade high in February. Surging prices are adding to American’s financial stress. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The pandemic has only added to a host of stressors that people in communities of color and lower income groups were already dealing with, says Cyrus.

“They’re still struggling with work, is this enough money to pay my bills? Is this enough money for my kids? Is it enough money to take care of my parents?” she says. “And then on top of that, we have to go out of town because someone died from COVID.”

The survey also found that – for the second year in a row – people are trying to cope with all the stress in unhealthy ways. Nearly a quarter of respondents said they are drinking more alcohol as a coping mechanism.

And nearly 60% said they experienced undesired weight changes, with the loss of an average of 27 pounds, and an average gain of 26 pounds. This weight gain is slightly lower than last year, where the average was 29 pounds gained.

“What that tells us is that stress is both causing people to eat more than they really want to and for some to eat less than what they really want to eat because we know that stress can impact people in different ways,” says Wright.

Stress has also been affecting people’s relationships during the pandemic, with 58% reporting relationships under strain or ending. The issue most likely to fuel conflict was canceling events or gatherings over COVID concerns. People also fought about vaccines, mask-wearing and different views of the pandemic overall.

In the long run, if not managed well, high levels of stress can lead to a rise in mortality and morbidity, Wright.

“We know stress can lead to physical consequences, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension,” says Wright. “Emotionally, it can lead to things like depression, anxiety disorders, difficulty sleeping, which we’ve seen in the survey as well.”

However, the good news from past research is that most people eventually bounce back from temporary stressors.

“It might take some time, but most people are resilient and actually recover,” says Cyrus. “But I think there are others who will have to work on it to actually tap into our sources of resilience.”

That includes social support, she says: “I’m hoping that people will feel more activated and excited to link up with friends and family members because that’s one thing that does promote resilience.”

Giving yourself something to look forward to can be a big help, says psychiatrist Dr. Jessica Gold at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

It’s something she tells her patients often, she says. “I’ll often say something like, ‘pick something to do in the next couple of weeks that is just for you.'”

It could be something like getting a massage, or going for a walk with a friend, or just reading a book. Anything that brings you joy and eases some of the stress, says Gold.

Another thing that can help, Cyrus adds, is to try to regain some sense of control over your day-to-day life by setting some goals.

“That doesn’t mean they negate what’s happening [in the world], but that they have something else to sort of take their mind off, because you can’t worry about everything all the time,” she says. “Your brain just can’t do that.”

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