Yearning to be stress-free



What aggravates Americans most?

If you're like most Americans, stress holds a morbid fascination for you. Why? Because in this high-tech, high-octane country, stress is a constant companion. It guns its engine every day in freeway traffic jams, it quietly stalks the halls of your downsized, computerized workplace, it buzzes like an overloaded fuse box from countless neon signs, radios, beepers and telephones demanding your attention, and it slips into your house by way of the latest crime statistics on the evening news.

In the midst of this tension there are few harbors of serenity to be found. Your spouse? Forget it. Every time he leaves his dirty socks on the dining-room table or she throws out your favorite college sweatshirt, the stress rises like gasoline fumes on a hot summer day. Your children? . . . a constant source of anxiety no matter how old they are. Vacation? . . . who has enough free time, enough money . . . or enough flight insurance to really ease the mind? In fact, stress seems so prevalent throughout America that if we could build an armband big enough to take the Statue of Liberty's blood pressure, we'd surely find that she's at the boiling point.

Or would we?

Several months ago we asked you to fill out a questionnaire designed to explore your stress. How high is it? Where is it coming from? How does it feel? What do you do about it? Eleven thousand responses later we have the answers . . . and some of them may surprise you. Read on and find out just how well you stack up against the rest of the country when it comes to stress.

Q. What are your greatest sources of stress?
It's no great surprise that the overall, number-one greatest source of stress is personal finances . . . and running a close second is jobs. But, what was surprising is that while people making under $35,000 a year are stressed because money is tight, people making over $35,000 found their higher-paying jobs to be the number-one source of their stress. It would seem that the grass is the same color (a tad scorched) on both sides of the fence.

Coming in third, after finances and jobs, was "too many responsibilities and chores," followed by marriage/relationship, health, children, loneliness, sex, in-laws and neighbors.

The good news, however, is that when it comes to relationships, the best is yet to come. While 41 percent of our respondents ages 18 to 34 pegged relationships as a major stressor, that figure drops to 24 percent in those over 55. At least in matters of love, the older you get, the wiser you get. Or at least the more content.

Q. In general, do you think you have more or less stress than the people around you?
Less than one in five people is confidently serene enough to say that he experiences less stress than the people around him. Meanwhile a whopping 43 percent edgily checked the "more" box. And although 39 percent felt they were no better or worse off than the bundle of nerves sitting next to them, this figure needs to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, a full 36 percent of our respondents who have had a doctor tell them that stress was harming their health actually thought they were average. Either they weren't paying attention to their doctors . . . or they assumed that everyone else has ulcers.

Q. Do you think you experience more or less stress than your parents did?
As far as 54 percent are concerned, the good old days were exactly that . . . far less stressful than what we have to deal with today. Only 18 percent felt that they experienced less stress than their parents. But as we get older, our perspective on this question changes. In our age 35 to 54 group, 58 percent thought they have it harder than their parents. But that number drops to 46 percent after age 55. Either life gets easier, or we start to appreciate just how hard our parents had it in their day.

Q. How often do you blow your stack?
On the average, our respondents go red-faced, screaming ballistic about five times a month, although almost 10 percent of them admitted to losing their composure just about every day. And 49 percent blow their stacks less than once a month or never. According to the survey, just how much of a human volcano you are may have to do with your age and your educational level. Young people, ages 18 to 34, blow their stacks an average of eight times a month . . . people over 55, only three times. And while people with a high-school diploma or less lose it seven times per month, college graduates flip their intellectual lids a genteel four times.

Q. If you are married or living with another person, which of his or her habits give you the most stress? (Check all that apply.)
Here it is, the "hit parade" of connubial conflict:

Overly critical 28.5%
Sloppiness 26%
Won't talk 25%
Lack of attention to you 25%
Highly irritable 20.5%
Irresponsibility 15%
Lies to you 12%
Lateness 10%
Unreliability 9%
Spends too much money 9%
Stinginess 8%
Talks too much 6%
Excessive neatness 5%
Ain't love grand?
Q. How many weeks' vacation time do you take each year?
While Europeans quite regularly treat themselves to month-long holidays, Americans are notorious for shortchanging themselves on much-needed vacation time. In fact, one out of four people answering this survey takes no vacation at all. But most telling is the fact that while people in our low-stress group average about 2.2 weeks of vacation per year, people with high stress average only 1.4 weeks. What a difference a few days might make.

Q. How would you describe your general level of stress?
Only 6 percent described themselves as "calm and cool." Another 29 percent had "just enough stress to keep me on my toes." But the remaining68 percent of our respondents were not doing quite as well. Forty-two percent checked "High stress, but I can control it," 13 percent checked "I feel that at any moment I'll blow my stack," . . . and 13 percent admitted to being "Two steps ahead of a nervous breakdown."

Q. How do you react under stress?
Snap and argue 50%
Eat 47%
Cry 42%
Retreat from the world 37%
Talk louder and faster 33%
Talk to a friend 28%
Work harder 27%
Exercise 20%
Sleep 20%
Get aggressive 16%
Smoke 15%
Bite fingernails 14%
Drink alcohol 13%
Talk to a therapist 7%
Become inarticulate 6%
When we broke the overall response down into smaller groups, we noticed some differences between the sexes. Women under stress are more likely to eat, cry and, quite sensibly, talk to a friend. Men? They're more likely to sleep. And while everybody snaps and argues equally, that tendency diminishes over time. While 67 percent of the age 18 to 34 group did a bit of snapping, only 37 percent of the 55+ age-group did.

Q. How does your body respond under stress? (Check all that apply.)
Fatigue 60%
Headache 54%
Neck pain 41%
Racing heart 36%
Back pain 30%
Stomach pain 27%
Activated bowels 26%
Nausea 17%
Sweat 17%
Some of our respondents checked all of the boxes. Some checked nothing. But we noticed that people with higher general levels of stress felt more physical pain across the board than those with lower levels. And one more thing. Stress is not gender impartial. Women reported a higher incidence of headaches, neck pain and back pain than men who appeared to have fewer physical symptoms.

Q. Do you feel that stress is harming your (check all that apply):
Enjoyment of life 74%
Health 55%
Relationship with friends 21%
Marriage 19%
Job 15%
These percentages say it all. Only one out of every four of our respondents didn't feel as though stress was reducing his or her enjoyment of life.

Q. Has a doctor ever told you that stress is seriously damaging your health?
A little good news at last. Only 22 percent got the red flag from their physicians concerning stress. And once again, education level counts. People with a high-school diploma or less were more likely to have stress-related health problems than those with some college or a college degree.

Q. Which of the following do you do to consciously relieve stress? (Check all that apply.)
Exercise 47%
Relaxation techniques 46%
Watch TV or movie 45%
Rest or nap 42%
Think the problem through 41%
Listen to music 41%
Eat 32%
Talk it out 30%
Take medication 22%
Drink alcohol 12%
People who described their general levels of stress as low were more likely to select one of these activities than people in the high-stress group . . . with a few exceptions. High stress levels were associated with a greater tendency to choose less-healthy and more-passive ways of relieving stress--eating, taking medication, drinking alcohol and watching television. Coincidence?

Q. If you checked "relaxation techniques" above, which ones do you use?
Prayer 58%
Hot bath 48%
Meditation 33%
Listening to tapes 31%
Massage 19%
technique 18%
Self-hypnosis 11%
Yoga 9%
Biofeedback 5%
While prayer seemed to be at the top of everyone's list, preferences differed among groups of respondents. Women were more likely to favor hot baths, listening to tapes and yoga for relaxation. (Not one man checked yoga in our sampling.) On the other hand, men preferred progressive-relaxation techniques. Younger people chose hot baths and massage more than their older counterparts. Meanwhile, the over-55 group was more likely than other age-groups to use a sophisticated relaxation technique like biofeedback.

Q. Which do you fantasize about more?
Delightful peace and quiet 65%
Adventure and excitement 35%
At 48 percent, members of the 18-to-34 group were the only ones who yearn primarily for adventure. Apparently, everyone else was already getting all the excitement they needed, and little of the peace they want.

Q. Which of the following elements of modern life cause you to feel the most stress? (Check all that apply.)
Disagreements/conflicts with loved ones 58%
Money problems 55%
The pace of modern life 39%
Working/raising a family 39%
Excessive noise in your environment 29%
Crime in your community 25%
Violence on TV and movies 22%
Commuting 19%
Computers 10%
Despite the noise, the rushing pace, the crime and the violence, some things never change. The most stress still comes from something a medieval person could understand--family and money. But a few patterns still emerge. People most stressed by "the pace of modern life" tend to be 35 to 54, college educated and making over $35,000 a year. And violence on TV seems to be of most concern for those who are over 55.

Q. Have you ever done something irrational or destructive that you later regretted?
Yes 56%
No 44%
Believe it or not, men are not much more hot-headed than women, according to our survey. The ones most likely to be irrational are the young, at63 percent, and those who said theirgeneral level of stress was high, at70 percent. Most even tempered? People over 55: Only 45 percent did something they later regretted.

Q. What would be your ideal antistress vacation?
One week at a small, infrequently visited island 39%
One week on an adventure trip 22%
One week at a popular resort 20%
One week in my house alone, with the phone off the hook 15%
One week spent learning a new hobby 12%
Despite the fact that younger people fantasize about adventure, it is the 55+ group who most wanted an adventure trip. The 18-to-34 group? Forty-five percent wanted the small island. Go figure.

Q How do you feel when you are under stress?

Angry 61%
Burned out 58%
Powerless 47%
Sad 37%
Frightened 28%
Vulnerable 28%
Irrational 21%
Numb 15%
Exhilarated 10%
While stress may fell slightly different to everybody, women feel more burned out and sad than men, although the men in our survey claim to feel more vulnerable under stress than the women do.

Generally, at what time of the day do you feel the most stressed?

Late evening (just before bed) 11%
Early evening (just after work) 34%
Afternoon 23%
Midday 13%
Morning 18%
GRAPH: How much time do you set aside for yourself in a typical day?


By Mark Golin with Toby Hanlon

We left a little space on the survey where you could tell us about the most recent thing that sent you into an absolutely red-faced, yelling rage. Of the almost 4,000 responses we sampled, 1,134 had to do with spouses. Another 883 were work related, 658 screamed about children and 325, family in general. In other words, we are all probably much kinder to strangers than to people we know.

But as we sorted through the piles, we found a few responses so unusual, so trivial or universally maddening that we just had to print them. As you read them you may laugh, you may sympathize . . . or you may be very worried about the hair-trigger tempers walking around out there.

What Made You Blow Your Stack Most Recently?

* The dog ate the remote control . . . again.
* My cows wouldn't go where they were supposed to.
* Dropped an egg on the floor . . . it broke.
* My husband signed up for $4,000 in flying lessons after
I took a second job to pay bills.
* My husband lied about driving the car into two feet of water.
* My husband went to a dinner meeting and came home at 4 a.m.!
* Someone cheated in a domino game!
* A boat trailer and truck took up 11 spaces at a
motel parking lot.
* The blue jays were chirping too loud!
* Went to dinner with friends . . . was ignored the whole time.
* Neighbor had a leaf blower and two lawn mowers
going at the same time.
* My daughter had her tongue pierced.
* My husband was arguing so loudly with the television that I
couldn't hear my show.
* The bowler next to me kept running up just as I was
ready to bowl.
* Mother sued us after falling on our deck.
* My dog ate my new livingroom love seat.
* Oliver North!
* A rude waitress threw silverware at me, spilled my coffee,
burnt my toast and then told me never to come back.
* My daughter shaved half of her head. She's 13.
* Employer told me she has to approve who I want to date!
* After scraping, sanding and painting all day, my shower head
broke and I had to give myself a sponge bath.
* I'm Felix Unger . . . he's Oscar Madison.
* This guy kept loudly blowing his nose in a cafe.
* A fitness center tricked me into a membership.
* Since my husband's retirement he's become my "supervisor."
* While cleaning out my closets and drawers my husband
accidentally gave away all my winter clothes.
* My cats broke my answering machine.
* A man pushing a very squeaky cart.
* I was shortening a new pair of slacks . . . and cut the
same leg twice.
* Eighty-year-old tree in my front yard was cut down by mistake.
* Another shopper removed merchandise from my cart and kept it.
* The steak I ordered, which was supposed to be well done, was
still actually raw.
* Thirteen-year-old daughter snuck out of the house . . . was
returned at midnight by the sheriff.
* Being told by boss that "no one likes you."
* Sheep got loose.
* Husband complained about unwashed dishes . . . one dish, one
glass, one fork.
* Husband ran over his hearing aid.
* I had a bad headache and my husband actually asked me to fix
him a sandwich.
* Man in express checkout line at grocery store had too many
* And one person simply wrote this: Husband left 14 years ago.
Haven't blown my stack since.

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