WASHINGTON—American teens report experiences with stress that follow a similar pattern as adults, according to a new survey released today by the American Psychological Association (APA). In fact, during the school year, teens say their stress level is higher than levels reported by adults in the past month. For teens and adults alike, stress has an impact on healthy behaviors like exercising, sleeping well and eating healthy foods.
Findings from Stress in America™: Are Teens Adopting Adults’ Stress Habits?, which was conducted online by Harris Interactive Inc., (on behalf of APA) among 1,950 adults and 1,018 teens in the U.S. in August 2013, suggest that unhealthy behaviors associated with stress may begin manifesting early in people’s lives.
Teens report that their stress level during the school year far exceeds what they believe to be healthy (5.8 versus 3.9 on a 10-point scale) and tops adults’ average reported stress levels (5.8 for teens versus 5.1 for adults). Even during the summer — between Aug. 3 and Aug. 31, 2013, when interviewing took place — teens reported their stress during the past month at levels higher than what they believe is healthy (4.6 versus 3.9 on a 10-point scale). Many teens also report feeling overwhelmed (31 percent) and depressed or sad (30 percent) as a result of stress. More than one-third of teens report fatigue or feeling tired (36 percent) and nearly one-quarter of teens (23 percent) report skipping a meal due to stress.
Despite the impact that stress appears to have on their lives, teens are more likely than adults to report that their stress level has a slight or no impact on their body or physical health (54 percent of teens versus 39 percent of adults) or their mental health (52 percent of teens versus 43 percent of adults).
“It is alarming that the teen stress experience is so similar to that of adults. It is even more concerning that they seem to underestimate the potential impact that stress has on their physical and mental health,” says APA CEO and Executive Vice President Norman B. Anderson, PhD. “In order to break this cycle of stress and unhealthy behaviors as a nation, we need to provide teens with better support and health education at school and home, at the community level and in their interactions with health care professionals.”
According to the survey, few teens say their stress is on the decline — only 16 percent report that their stress level has declined in the past year — but approximately twice as many say their stress level has increased in the past year (31 percent) or believe their stress level will increase in the coming year (34 percent). Nearly half of teens (42 percent) report they are not doing enough or are not sure if they are doing enough to manage their stress and more than 1 in 10 (13 percent) say they never set aside time to manage stress.
Similarly, stress continues to be a problem for many adults, while high stress and ineffective coping mechanisms remain ingrained in American culture. Forty-two percent of adults report that their stress level has increased and 36 percent say their stress level has stayed the same over the past five years. Adults’ average reported stress level is a 5.1 on a 10-point scale, far higher than the level of stress they believe is healthy (3.6). Even though the majority of adults say that stress management is important to them, few set aside the time they need to manage stress. Some adults do not take any action at all to help manage their stress — 1 in 10 adults (10 percent) say they do not engage in any stress management activities. More than one-third (36 percent) of adults say stress affects their overall happiness a great deal or a lot and 43 percent of adults who exercise to relieve stress have actually skipped exercise due to stress in the past month.
Influence of Stress on Health Behaviors
The survey also explored the relationship between stress and health behaviors like sleep, exercise and eating — behaviors that people say are important to them but that the survey showed are negatively affected by stress. Survey findings illustrate that when people are living with high stress, it appears that they are less likely to sleep well, exercise and eat healthy foods.
- Stress and sleep: When adults do not get enough sleep, 21 percent report feeling more stressed. On average, teens report sleeping far less than the recommended amount — 7.4 hours on school nights and 8.1 hours on non-school nights, compared with the 8.5 to 9.25 hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. Nearly 1 in 5 teens (18 percent) say that when they do not get enough sleep, they are more stressed and 36 percent of teens report feeling tired because of stress in the past month.
- Stress and exercise: Though people say they experience positive benefits from exercise, such as a better mood and less stress, few say they make the time to exercise every day. The survey found that more than one-third of adults (37 percent) and 1 in 5 teens (20 percent) report exercising less than once a week or not at all. Teens who report high stress during the past school year also say they spend an average of 3.2 hours online a day, compared with two hours among those reporting low stress levels during the past school year.
- Stress and eating: Twenty-seven percent of adults say they eat to manage stress and 34 percent of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say this behavior is a habit. Of the 23 percent of teens who report skipping a meal in the past month due to stress, 39 percent say they do this weekly or more.
“Parents and other adults can play a critical role in helping teens get a handle on stress by modeling healthy stress management behaviors,” says Anderson. “When spending time with teens, we can encourage them to exercise, eat well, get the sleep they need and seek support from health care professionals like psychologists to help them develop healthier coping mechanisms for stress sooner rather than later.”
To read the full Stress in America report, download graphics and view the new video “Stress in America: Conquering Your Stress,” visit APA’s Stress in America Press Room.
For additional information on stress, lifestyle and behaviors, visit APA’s Help Center and read APA’s Mind/Body Health campaign blog. Join the conversation about stress on Twitter by following @APAHelpCenter and #stressAPA.
The Stress in America survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive Inc., on behalf of the American Psychological Association between Aug. 3-31, 2013, among 1,950 adults ages 18 and over and 1,018 teens, ages 13 to 17, who reside in the U.S. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. To read the full methodology, including the weighting variables, visit APA’s Stress in America Press Room.
The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes more than 134,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.