Americans may be significantly more stressed than they were five years ago, and concerns over home mortgage rates could be a big part of the problem.
The American Psychological Association's (APA) 2007 Stress in America poll, released Wednesday, showed that nearly half of Americans -- 48 percent -- believe that their stress levels have increased during the past five years.
By its very nature, the survey, conducted online by Harris Interactive between Aug. 30 and Sept. 11, 2007, among 1,848 adults, may not carry the same scientific weight as some other methods of research.
But what was particularly interesting about the findings, said Dr. Beverly Thorn, president of the APA health psychology division and a professor of psychology at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, is that more than half of respondents cited housing costs as a major source of stress, even when they were not necessarily prompted to mention such worries.
The mortgage rate roller coaster, combined with the decline in home values in some areas of the United States, has created a situation in which all homeowners may be impacted in one way or another -- either through rising mortgage payments or a loss of equity.
"We know that housing costs are going up," she said. "More importantly, it was reflected in people's comments as to why they were stressed … We know now from this survey that people link it directly to increased levels of stress."
Dr. Bankole Johnson, chair of the University of Virginia Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, agrees that certain elements of the mortgage meltdown could be wearing away at Americans' ability to absorb the stress.
"The most important thing is that it's very uncertain," he said. "Therefore a lot of people are faced with a sense of an uncertain situation, and for most people that's a big stressor."
Johnson adds that the fact that nearly everyone is affected by rising costs of living could add to stress among the public in general.
"Also, the way in which the media has reported this -- as an immediate and dramatic event -- has many people, even people who are not thinking about selling their homes, feeling the financial impact," he said.
Additionally, about one-third of the respondents to the survey reported experiencing extreme levels of stress. Nearly one in five reported experiencing high levels of stress 15 or more days per month.
But many may have matters other than mortgages on their minds as well. Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author of the upcoming book "American Dreams Interrupted," said another important stressor -- the threat of terrorism -- may be part of the reason that Americans have reported increasing stress levels over the past five years.
"In my opinion, the primary source of this stress has to do with the threat of terrorism," she said. "What's unfortunate about this study is that they don't even give people the option of choosing terrorism as a source of stress."
Johnson agrees that the political climate of the last decade is likely another source of stress for many Americans.
"There is the constant stress of the war on terrorism," he said. "I would say that in the last 10 years, there is more stress in general in the world. There is more uncertainty and a feeling that the world is somehow less safe than it ever has been."
Regardless of the cause, it seems that for many Americans, stress makes a nasty bedfellow. Nearly half -- 48 percent -- of respondents reported that their stress kept them awake at night sometimes during the past month, and on average they reported losing 21 hours of sleep per month.
"We know sleep is such an important component of our overall health," Thorn said. "When it is interfered with, it really takes a toll on our brain chemistry and, as a result, our mood."
Johnson added that this toll is not only psychological, but biological as well.
"When the body reacts to stress, it secretes stress hormones that make it difficult for us to sleep," he said.
Less sleep leads to the secretion of more of this stress hormone, which in turn leads to even more difficulty sleeping. Such a vicious cycle can lead to burnout, a condition in which Johnson said our bodies can no longer respond to normal stressors in an effective way.
And the impacts of added stress don't just show up in the form of lost sleep. Half of respondents to the survey say that their stress manifests itself as irritability or anger, and half also reported fatigue and headaches. This despite the fact that 82 percent of those who participated in the survey said they felt like they manage their stress well.
So what can people do to deal with their stress, even if they are under the weight of increased housing costs? Thorn suggests that people take stock of the things that are causing them stress and determine which ones they have at least some control over.
"Making plans to cope increases the sense of control," she said.
She adds that recent reports citing preliminary signs of a turnaround in the housing market may help some who are feeling stressed out over their mortgages, even if relief is a while in coming.
But Thorn said one of the most worrying findings of the survey is that even though people say they are stressed and agree that psychological counseling might be able to help with this stress, only about 7 percent of respondents said they had sought such help in the past year.
"Who knows what the barriers are?" Thorn said, adding that anything from insurance and financial considerations to time constraints could be the reasons why people don't seek counseling.
"It is important to know that there is not just one thing that is causing stress in our lives, but it is a number of things," she said. "The key is building in a sense of controlability in small ways."
And if it feels like the weight of your house is starting to cave in on you, Thorn has another suggestion -- step out the front door and take a few laps around the block.
"Physical activity is a great anti-stress and anti-depression measure. It's a great means of dealing with stress. It elevates the same chemical in the brain that is elevated by antidepressants."
"Instead of reaching for the third glass of wine or the 12th cigarette of the day, they should put on their walking shoes and go around the block three or four times."
The APA also offers the following tips on how to manage stress:
Since everyone experiences stress differently, it is important to understand how you experience stress. Knowing this, you can better tailor your strategy to avoid certain sources of stress or eliminate them altogether.
Identify your sources of stress. What events or situations trigger stressful feelings? Take into consideration issues related to your children, family, health, financial decisions, work and relationships.
Recognize how you deal with stress -- especially if your strategies are unhealthy ones. This may help you devise healthier strategies for letting off steam, such as meditation, exercising or talking things out with friends or family.
Take care of yourself. Eat right, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water and engage in regular physical activity. And no matter how hectic life gets, make time for yourself -- even if it's just in simple ways like reading a good book or listening to your favorite music.
Be willing to reach out for support. Accepting help from supportive friends and family can improve your ability to manage stress. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by stress, you may want to talk to a psychologist.