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How Stress in America Measures Up

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Face it: Americans are stressed out. We live in a workaholic culture that expects us to do it all, and better than everyone else. Most of us don’t get enough sleep or exercise and it’s taking a toll on our health. In fact, stress kills—it leads to disease and will shorten your life if you can’t manage it.

Of course, stress is relative. Compared to, say, horribly oppressed people, or those who live in abject poverty, most Americans have got it pretty good. However, we’re nowhere near the top of the heap when it comes to sweet, stress-free lives. The American Psychological Association has even said that America is on the verge of a “stress-induced public health crisis.”

Here’s how our stress measures up:

General Comparison

Work is a major cause of stress in America, and is the primary factor that sets our stress levels apart from those living in Europe. Surveys show the U.S. falling well behind most European countries not only in potential stressors such as medical and child care, but also in attitudes about working. Most of Europe has laws that limit the number of hours people can work per week to 35. They’re given far more vacation days than we do, and they actually take it. The culture in Europe values leisure time in a way that is almost inconceivable to Americans. Even the retirement age is lower in Europe. Technological advances and the ease of travel have increased productivity demands to the point where we Americans with our go-get-‘em work ethics are killing ourselves with stress.

Stress in Women

Pretty much everybody is stressed out, but stress is different between the sexes. Although gender roles have softened and more men are stepping up to help with things that were traditionally a woman’s domain, it is still the case that, in general, women are more responsible for running the household and childcare. Add to this the fact that most women now work outside the home as well, and you’ve got a recipe for stress pie.

A recent study on women in 21 different countries showed that women are definitely feeling the pressure—anywhere between 44 and 87 percent report being chronically stressed out, depending on the country. India was number one for stressed out women, followed by Mexico and Russia. The U.S. ranked 11th on the list. The surprising thing is that women in countries like China and Japan were less stressed than American women. The primary cause of stress in countries with the highest numbers of women under pressure? Having to juggle traditional roles and responsibilities with a modern career.

Stress in Students

Just as with their parents, American kids are feeling the pressure, too–primarily teens. More kids than ever understand that college is a necessary stepping stone to finding a good paying someday, but colleges are getting harder and harder to get into with the increased competition. Public and private schools alike depend on high test scores and college admissions rates for funding and, as a result, homework loads continue to increase. Many high school students spend so much time studying, they don’t have time to just chill out and be kids. Unfortunately, just as with adults, high levels of stress can take a big toll on the health and well-being of American teens.

How to Minimize Stress

If you’ve read a magazine or turned on the TV in the last decade, you’ve probably already heard the conventional wisdom on reducing stress, but it bears repeating. The biggies are getting enough sleep (minimum of 8 hours per night), exercising regularly, and talking it out with someone.

A recent survey conducted by psychologist Robert Epstein indicates that there is something more you can do to manage your stress, though: plan ahead. Epstein’s survey showed that, among people who live with stress (and don’t we all?), those who used planning to manage it suffered fewer health effects and rated themselves as happier. Whether planning out your morning, your day, or the next ten years, it can help significantly. Other strategies included yoga, breathing techniques, and reframing your stressors in a neutral or positive way instead of negatively.

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