Stress is often an inescapable fact of life. We all have responsibilities, deadlines, and bills. Relationships are never smooth sailing forever. Add in world and national events, politics, and the like, and life can feel pretty overwhelming and heavy.
But if you’ve been feeling especially frazzled, anxious, tense, and stressed lately — and even more so than you remember your parents being when they were your age back in the ’90s — it’s not a fluke, and you’re not the only one.
A new study suggests that all age groups are more stressed and report lower levels of well-being than people their same age did 30 years ago — but the change is especially striking for people in middle age. What’s more, the study was conducted prior to recent stressful events like the coronavirus, the poor economy, and protests against police brutality and racial injustices, all of which are likely adding even more pressure into the mix.
Here’s what the new findings show, and what you can do to dial down your stress levels today.
Stress Levels Today Versus 30 Years Ago
For the study, researchers from Penn State University wanted to get an accurate picture of how stress levels have changed over the years. So they compared data on stress and well-being from nearly 1,500 adults collected in 1995 with data collected from different people in 2012. Then they looked at groups by age.
The researchers found that, across all ages of the later cohort, people were about 2% more stressed than their counterparts were in the ’90s. That might not seem like much, but that 2% is the equivalent of an extra week of stress per year, according to researchers.
What’s even more notable, however, is that those aged 45 to 64 saw an even bigger jump in stress — they’re 19% more stressed than middle-aged people were 30 years ago. And that amounts to a whopping 64 additional days of stress per year. These results fly in the face of previous research that generally found that as people get older, they report feeling more emotionally stable.
It’s important to note that no single study can be the basis for an absolute or definitive conclusion. Still, if you step back and look at the bigger picture and societal changes over the years, it makes sense that we’re more stressed today than our predecessors were 30 years ago. And yes, especially for those of us in that middle-age group.
In an interview, David M. Almeida, Ph.D., the lead researcher of the Penn State stress study, noted that stress in midlife — aka the “mid-life crisis” — was once thought to be caused by fear of getting older or death. However, newer research is pointing to other, more likely factors, at least for this most recent generation.
Stress Factor #1: More Knowledge
Knowledge is a wonderful thing, and the more we can get, the better off we generally are. That said, greater knowledge of, well, everything can easily stress us out and keep us up at night.
Consider that, for the most part throughout history, there has always been struggle, strife, inequality, and other horrible things going on. The difference: Now we’re seeing and hearing about it more than ever on numerous media platforms 24 hours a day, and it simply makes it feel as if the world is falling apart. Add to that the process of deciphering what’s real and accurate reporting and what the biases are, and the burden grows.
So, while aspects of life itself may or may not be more stressful, the fact that we know so much more about what’s happening greatly contributes to the amount of stress we carry. Often, a lot of our stress may come simply because we get all this information but then can’t do anything about it — other than feel angry or upset, of course.
Stress Factor #2: Advances in Technology
As with knowledge, technology has overall led to many positive things and made life much easier in many ways. But again, it can and often does add to our stress — even apart from how tech allows for a constant influx of news and information.
For example, most jobs today rely on using computers, machines, and other technology that can make your day-to-day more complex and fast-paced. That’s an even bigger issue now that many of us are working remotely — and are likely to continue doing so at least in some capacity for the near future.
In other words, technology requires us to know more and do more in less time, and that adds to increases in stress. Technology also allows for less separation and compartmentalization in life — especially as more people are working from home these days.
No longer do the majority of people clock in and out at the same time every day. Instead, the lines between work life and home life are blurry at best, and nonexistent at worst. That feeling that you’re always being pulled in different directions or that you must stay hypervigilant to everything can be incredibly wearing.
Stress Factor #3: Added Responsibility
People ages 45 to 64 are referred to as the “sandwich generation” because they often find themselves sandwiched between caring for or helping support both their children and their aging parents. Dr. Almeida also noted that many people in middle age are at a point in their careers where they shoulder more responsibility at work and for employees. That’s a lot of people and things to take care of, and all of it likely adds up to more daily stress.
How to Better Manage Stress
Most of us can’t simply eliminate all the things in life that stress us out. But what we can do is change the way we deal with and think about those stressors, and approach life in a way that allows us to take care of ourselves.
In other words, we can learn to better adapt to stress. For example, getting enough sleep and eating healthy, unprocessed and plant-based foods are two common and effective strategies. A few others:
1. Filter Your Information Smartly and Selectively.
I’ve come to see that we humans seem to be attracted to conflict. We dwell on our own and others’ misery, even as it makes us feel worse. For example, it’s simply not natural nor healthy to watch true crime stories at 10 or 11 o’clock at night, or to receive constant negative and sensationalized news alerts and stop everything to dive into the bad news.
Consider this: One recent paper looked at the psychological distress stemming from overexposure to media around the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers concluded that repeatedly consuming updates via the 24/7 news cycle is indeed quite damaging to our mental health.
Why? When you over-consume alarming news, you’re more likely to perceive a greater “threat,” which then activates and, more importantly, sustains your body’s fight-or-flight response for a longer period of time.
So, as much as possible, seek out balanced and less sensational new sources, consume news with a more critical eye, and try to limit your exposure throughout the day. That doesn’t mean burying your head in the sand, rather it’s about making smarter choices about where, how, and especially how much you take in news and other information.
Here are a few ways to staunch the constant influx:
- Turn off news alerts on your phone, and instead set aside time once or twice a day to update yourself.
- Avoid constantly checking social media or spending long periods passively scrolling through the endless links, opinions, updates, and, as is often the case, vitriol.
- When you can, leave your phone at home, or use the “do not disturb” settings.
Also, try to think more critically of the information you do take in, and put it into perspective and context. As you’re consuming news or other info, especially if it stirs up anger, anxiety, or other strong, negative emotions, ask yourself how you might take action or what you can do — or if you’re getting riled up over something you have little control over in the moment.
You can approach entertainment in the same way: Ask yourself, is what you’re watching or reading making your life better or enriching you or your knowledge in some way, or is it only serving to make you anxious and stressed?
Finally, pay close attention to how you feel when you consume news and information in light of other stressful things going on in your life. If you find that stress is becoming debilitating or severely impacting your mental or physical health, consider taking a news or social media holiday and focusing on your personal wellness and healthy coping strategies.
For example, there were times when I was really struggling with Lyme disease that I would go for a period without watching or listening to any news, and was overall very careful about the information that reached me. It helped me immensely.
2. Get Added Support from Herbs.
While there’s no magic bullet or pill you can pop that magically cures you of feeling stressed, herbs can give you a leg up by helping to balance systems in the body and brain involved in the stress response. What to try:
This effective adaptogenic herb helps balance and support hypothalamic functions. That’s key, since your body’s stress response is regulated by what’s called the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.
The HPA axis is the central hormone pathway in the body that connects your central nervous system — which senses and perceives stress — with your endocrine system, which releases and manages stress hormones. Ashwagandha also helps promote healthy cognitive function and focus.
An amino acid found naturally in green tea, l-theanine is able to cross into the brain to help improve focus and concentration. But, unlike caffeine that keeps you awake and can make you jittery (and make stress worse), it has a calming effect and is known to help promote healthy sleep.
L-theanine works primarily by counteracting stimulating neurotransmitters in the brain and the negative effects of stress-induced adrenal secretion. It also helps support healthy blood pressure and may encourage positive mood.
Chinese Tree Bark Extracts
Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense extracts help support healthy adrenal function and, like l-theanine, promote calm without leaving you drowsy or feeling sedated. One study reported that four weeks of daily supplementation of the two bark extracts was effective at lowering daily stress, feelings of depression, fatigue, and anger, while also improving overall mood.
Short for cannabidiol, CBD is the primary chemically-active component of the hemp plant. It works by binding lightly to receptors in the endocannabinoid system, a complex regulatory system that influences reaction to stress. The result is an overall balancing effect that improves your resistance to stress and enhances sense of well-being. Plus, it can help promote natural sleep if stress is keeping you up at night. To get the benefits, be sure to take a full-spectrum extract.
3. Get Out in Nature.
Research has repeatedly shown that nature — be it a secluded hiking trail, wide-open space, or urban green area — is an effective antidote to stress and its harmful side effects on your health. There are several likely explanations, including that nature helps give our brains a much-needed “break” from the influx of information it otherwise must deal with in the course of our regular day.
We humans also evolved from living in natural environments. Simply put, living amongst and in a more natural setting is embedded in our DNA, and as such, it’s comforting. So the more time you can spend outdoors, surrounded by greenery or water or mountains, the more likely you are to be able to relax and recharge.
4. Focus on Action.
When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it’s easy to slip into negative and unhealthy patterns of thinking. For example, it’s common in many chronic illness online forums for people to continually post about and dwell on how terrible they feel or all the bad things they’re experiencing. And while it can be beneficial to share hardships and seek empathy, there’s a tendency to miss out on the little health wins and moments of positivity in the process that could help buoy their spirits.
Catastrophizing is another common response to stressful situations. The more you dwell or ruminate on negative feelings or day-to-day experiences, the easier it can be to feel that the situation is far worse than it actually is — and that there’s nothing you can do to turn the tide. And that can compound your stress and make it even harder to manage and work through.
Instead, look to people or things that help you move in a positive direction rather than keep you stuck on the negative. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t discuss or validate negative emotions, just be sure it’s not the only thing you’re doing. As much as possible, focus on what positive and healthy actions you can take – even the small and simple ones – to cope with stress in healthy ways.
For example, go for a walk or read a lighthearted book. Get together with upbeat friends you enjoy spending time with. If you can, volunteer with an organization or, at the least, engage in kind and helping behaviors toward friends and strangers. Research shows that even small acts of kindness — like holding a door open for someone — help mitigate the negative effects of everyday stress and protect mental health.
5. Engage in Meditative Activities.
While meditation is a proven way to deal with stress and improve mental health, the truth is, it can be a hard practice and habit to fit into your life. I’ve tried to meditate, but when I’m anxious, my heart is racing and my stress hormones are revved to the max, it’s really hard to come down by trying to sit and meditate.
What I’ve found to be more valuable and practical is engaging in what I call meditative activities or a meditative approach to life. A good example of a meditative activity is berry picking.
For me, picking berries for an hour does more for my mental health than trying to sit still and focus my mind. The reason this works as “meditation” is because it forces you to pay attention to one neutral thing repeatedly and without much effort — searching for the ripe berries among the not-yet ripe ones.
It’s also somewhat active, and when you’re stressed and your body is in that fight-or-flight mode, it expects movement. The human stress response evolved in order to give you the physical resources and energy needed to literally fight or take flight.
So, if you can move your body in some way when you’re feeling on edge, it will immediately start to burn off stress and help you come down from that heightened state. And if, while you’re moving, you can help to focus and quiet your mind, that’s the golden ticket.
Beyond berry picking, other meditative activities include gardening and yard-work, biking, kayaking, hiking, jogging — anything that focuses your attention on something positive or neutral. If you want to give traditional meditation a try, go for it, of course! But know it’s not the only path to harnessing the stress-reducing benefits of meditation.
Stressful times and events combined with general, everyday stress can sap your energy and feel insurmountable. However, even if you can’t control what’s happening, you can control how you think about it and what you do to cope.
Taking positive actions, even small ones — from getting simple exercise and ample sleep to practicing kindness and taking herbs — can give you back a sense of control and empower you to better manage whatever curveballs life throws your way.
1. Almeida, David M. et al. (2020) “Charting adult development through (historically changing) daily stress processes.” American Psychologist. 75(4), 511–524.
2. Bohn, Katie. 2020. “Middle age may be much more stressful now than in the 1990s.” Penn State News. Retrieved from https://news.psu.edu/story/618484/2020/05/07/research/middle-age-may-be-much-more-stressful-now-1990s
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