You may have felt it, but now a scientific analysis of stress over time offers some proof that there's more stress in people's lives today than 25 years ago.
Stress increased 18% for women and 24% for men from 1983 to 2009, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who analyzed data from more than 6,300 people. It's considered the first-ever historical comparison of stress levels across the USA.
"The data suggest there's been an increase in stress over that time," says psychologist and lead author Sheldon Cohen, director of Carnegie Mellon's Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease. The analysis is published online in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
In research done in 1983, 2006 and 2009, those with higher stress were women, people with lower incomes and those with less education. Findings also show that as people age, stress decreases.
"Thirty-year-olds have less stress than 20-year-olds, and 40-year-olds have less stress than 30-year-olds," says Cohen, who has studied the relationship between stress and disease for 35 years.
All three surveys used the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), a measure Cohen and others created in 1983 to assess the degree to which situations in life are perceived as stressful. Each survey respondent answered a series of questions designed to evaluate their stress levels; researchers used the scale to analyze responses and calculate an overall score. Higher scores indicate greater psychological stress.
Results show increases in stress in almost every demographic category from 1983 to 2009, ranging from 10%-30%.
"Cohen is a good investigator," says psychiatrist David Spiegel, director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University School of Medicine in Stanford, Calif. "He's using a measure of subjective stress."
White, middle-aged men with college degrees and full-time jobs were the group most affected by the economic downturn, the study found. Cohen says that group's increase was almost double that of any other demographic group.
Physician Paul Rosch, president of the non-profit American Institute of Stress, based in Yonkers, N.Y., says this study is more credible than most stress surveys because of its scientific methodology.
And the results make sense, experts say. When you compare the early 1980s to today, "economic pressures are greater, and it's harder to turn off information, and it's harder to buffer ourselves from the world," Spiegel says.