About one third of all American adults are taking care of their ill or disabled relatives, the National Alliance for Caregiving estimates, and that number is expected to grow as more people find themselves sandwiched between their own young kids and their rapidly-aging parents. Obviously, it's a stressful situation, but according to the American Psychological Association's latest report on stress, it's even tougher than most people think. Caregivers (who are usually women) are more likely to report stress than the general population -- and they're more likely to suffer from chronic illness themselves, even though they're the ones taking care of people who are chronically ill.
In the newly released report, "Stress in America: Our Health at Risk," 1,226 U.S. residents ranked their stress levels and discussed their beliefs about stress and health. While the average stress rating dropped slightly since 2010 -- from 5.4 to 5.2 on a 10-point scale -- 39 percent of respondents said that their stress levels had increased over the past year, and 44 percent said that theirs had increased over the past five years. Meanwhile, just 29 percent of respondents said that they thought they were doing an "excellent" or "very good" job managing or reducing their stress levels.
But what's causing the stress? According to the report, money (75 percent), work (70 percent), and the economy (67 percent) top the list, though the severity depends on where you live. People in the East were more stressed about money, relationships, and job stability than those in the West, and those in the South were most concerned about family responsibilities.
Numerous studies have shown the link between stress and chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and depression. And those who care for people with chronic illnesses, ironically, are more likely -- 82 percent, compared to 61 percent for non-caregivers -- to develop chronic illness themselves. They also tend to manage their stress in less-healthy ways, like smoking (20 percent, compared to 10 percent of non-caregivers), and 55 percent of caregivers surveyed admitted that they felt "overwhelmed" by the amount of care their aging or ill family member required.
"We are caught in a vicious cycle where our stress exceeds our own definition of what is healthy, and those who are already living with a chronic illness report even higher levels of stress," psychologist Norman B. Anderson, the American Psychological Association's CEO and executive vice president, said in a statement. "Given the persistent nature of our stress and the serious physical health consequences associated with it, stress has the potential to become the country’s next public health crisis."
Some ways of coping with stress are healthier than others. Here are five things to try:
1. Exercise. It can help stress-proof your brain, so that when you're in a stressful circumstances, your brain will be less reactive. But don't force yourself to go through a workout that you hate -- that can trigger your body to release stress hormones that undermine the positive effect of the exercise.
2. Don't diet. Instead of eating because you're stressed (ice cream! Chocolate!), try to eat only when you're hungry -- and pay attention to the foods you're eating. Savoring your meals makes more of a difference -- and causes less physical and psychological stress -- than dieting.
3. Get enough sleep. Your ability to combat stress gets lowered if you don't get enough sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, a hot bath taken 90 minutes before bedtime can help. Our bodies need to be relatively cool in order to achieve that slow-wave sleep that we really need. Soaking in a hot bath elevates your body temperature, and when you get out you cool down rapidly, which helps you slip into a deeper sleep.
4. Try not to be negative. That doesn't mean you need to put on those rose-colored glasses, says Thea Singer, the author of "Stress Less: The New Science that Shows Women how to Rejuvenate the Body and the Mind." Look for the good things in your day and write them down or tell someone about them in order to "bring it into the world" and put things in perspective. Focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses, do something nice for someone else, set reasonable and attainable goals, and put a positive spin on a negative experience, she suggests.
5. Meditate. Or, at least, remember to breathe deeply. Singer writes that daily meditation can lead to an increase in perceived control which, in turn, decreases stress. Stress gets bad "when we're ruminating, we're worrying, we're obsessing about things and we're not expending any of the physical energy," Singer explains. "It's in heads, but it's our bodies and brains that pay the price."
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