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Poll finds health most common major stressful event in Americans' lives last year

Princeton, N.J. A new NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) poll released today that examines the role of stress in Americans' lives finds that about half of the public (49%) reported that they had a major stressful event or experience in the past year. Nearly half (43%) reported that the most stressful experiences related to health.

More than half of those who experienced a great deal of stress in the past month say too many overall responsibilities and financial problems were contributors (54% and 53% respectively). More than a third of those with a great deal of stress say the contributors include their own health problems (38%) and health problems of family members (37%).

"It is not widely recognized how many Americans have a major stressful event over the course of a year, or how often health problems are the cause," says Robert J. Blendon, Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at HSPH.

"Stress touches everyone. Unfortunately, many of those feeling the most stress get trapped in cycles that can be very unhealthy. If we are going to build a culture of health in America, one big step we can take is recognizing the causes and effects not just of our own stress and the stress of those closest to us, but of others we encounter in our day-to-day lives. That recognition can go a long way in helping us create healthier environments in our homes, workplaces and communities," says Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, RWJF president and CEO.

(NOTE: Watch a live RWJF/Harvard School of Public Health/NPR webcast on Wednesday, July 9, from 12:30-1:30 PM ET that will provide expert perspectives on the health burden of stress, and actions that people and institutions can take to manage stress in homes, workplaces, and communities. Visit this link to view the HSPH Forum webcast:

High levels of stress in the last month

About a quarter reported having a "great deal" of stress (26%) over just the past month. People in poor health are more than twice as likely as the public as a whole to report a great deal of stress in the past month (60%).

People who are disabled are also much more likely to report a great deal of stress (45%). Other groups likely to report a great deal of stress include those with a chronic illness (36%), those with low incomes (<$20K) (36%), those who face potentially dangerous situations in their jobs (36%), single parents (35%), and parents of teens (34%).

Significant impact on lives

Bad effects on emotional well-being (63%) are the most common health effect reported by those with a great deal of stress in the last month, followed by problems with sleep (56%) and difficulty in thinking, concentrating, or making decisions (50%). About half of those with a great deal of stress as well as a chronic illness or disability say stress made the symptoms worse (53%) or made it harder for them to manage their chronic illness or disability (52%).

In addition, many report significant impacts from stress in other spheres of their lives. More than four in ten of those under a great deal of stress in the last month report that this stress made it harder to get along with family members (45%) and prevented them from spending time with family members (44%). Half of those who experienced a great deal of stress in the last month and are employed say stress made it harder to concentrate at work (51%), and 41% say it made it harder to take on extra responsibilities that could help advance their career.

Efforts to manage high levels of stress

Those who have experienced a great deal of stress over the past month tried to reduce their stress in many ways. Most who had experienced a great deal of stress in the last month and taken steps to manage it say each of the things they did to reduce stress were effective. More than nine in ten say that regularly spending time outdoors (94%) or spending time on a hobby (93%) was effective. About seven in ten (71%) said they regularly spent time with family and friends to reduce stress, while just under six in ten say they regularly prayed or meditated (57%), spent time outdoors (57%) or ate healthfully (55%). However, less than half of respondents took certain steps to reduce their stress that are often recommended by experts, such as regularly exercising (51% did not) or regularly getting a full night's sleep (54% did not).

(Reporters can request the poll results and charts by emailing Marge Dwyer,


This poll is part of an ongoing series of surveys developed by researchers at the Harvard Opinion Research Program (HORP) at Harvard School of Public Health in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR. The research team consists of the following members at each institution.

Harvard School of Public Health: Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis and Executive Director of HORP; Gillian K. SteelFisher, Research Scientist and Assistant Director of HORP; Kathleen J. Weldon, Research and Administrative Manager; John M. Benson, Research Scientist and Managing Director of HORP, and Mandy Brul, Research Specialist.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Fred Mann, Associate Vice President, Communications; Carolyn Miller, Senior Program Officer, Research-Evaluation-Learning; and Ari Kramer, Communications Officer.

NPR: Anne Gudenkauf, Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk; Joe Neel, Deputy Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk.

Interviews were conducted via telephone (including both landline and cell phone) by SSRS of Media (PA), March 3 April 8, 2014, among a nationally representative sample of 2,505 adults age 18 and older. The interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of error for total respondents is +/- 2.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Of the total sample, 633 said they have experienced a great deal of stress in the past month. The margin of error for this group is +/- 4.6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection within and across households, sample data are weighted by household size, cell phone/landline use, and demographics (sex, age, race/ethnicity, education, marital status, and census region) to reflect the true population. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.


Contact: Marge Dwyer
Harvard School of Public Health

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