Chronic Stress Could Still Affect Mental Health Years After COVID-19

Certain groups, like Gen Z teens and young adults, have been particularly affected by chronic stress due to the pandemic. Artist GND Photography/Getty Images

The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey has r…

Certain groups, like Gen Z teens and young adults, have been particularly affected by chronic stress due to the pandemic. Artist GND Photography/Getty Images
  • The American Psychological Association's Stress in America survey has revealed that Americans were under greater stress in 2020 than in previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • This stress could have an impact for years to come.
  • No one is immune to stress, but certain groups, like Gen Z teens and young adults, have been particularly affected.
  • Connectedness and self-care are important ways we can become more resilient to stress.

Each year since 2007 the American Psychological Association (APA) has conducted its Stress in America Survey.

This survey takes a look at how stressed Americans are, why they are stressed, and how they are responding to that stress.

While factors such as the economy, racism, and political strife have always played a role in people's stress levels, the APA is reporting that the year 2020 was different.

In addition to these factors, the country faced the relentless presence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the pandemic has come a great loss of life.

In addition, people who have recovered from COVID-19 may have “long-haul COVID-19,” and deal with chronic symptoms long after their initial infection.

Even people who have successfully avoided the virus have been affected in other ways, such as job loss and financial uncertainty.

And, compounding all of this, has been a backdrop of racism and political struggle.

According to the APA, these factors have all added up to “a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”

How is stress affecting Americans?

The survey revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the majority of Americans.

Almost 8 out of every 10 adults (78 percent) said that the pandemic is a “significant” source of stress for them.

Also, 2 out of 3 adults (67 percent) said they've had increased stress during this time.

Almost half of adults (49 percent) said the pandemic adversely affected their behavior. Among the most common behaviors they reported were increased body tension (21 percent), being quick to anger (20 percent), mood changes (20 percent), and yelling at loved ones (17 percent).

In addition to the pandemic as a source of stress, there were also many sources of stress that carried over from the previous year's report, including worries about healthcare (66 percent), mass shootings (62 percent), climate change (55 percent), rising suicide rates (51 percent), immigration (47 percent), and the opioid/heroin crisis (45 percent).

Another theme of the survey was growing uncertainty and concern about the future.

Almost 2 out 3 adults (65 percent) reported feeling stressed about the current amount of uncertainty in the country.

Further, 3 out of 5 (60 percent) said they felt that the country is facing an overwhelming number of issues.

Americans also appeared to be more worried than ever about the long-term well-being of the country.

More than 3 out of 4 adults (77 percent) said the nation's future is a “significant” source of stress for them.

More than 7 out of 10 (71 percent) said this is the lowest point in the country's history within their memory.

This contrasts with only 56 percent who felt this way in 2019.

Who is affected the most?

Dr. Iram Kazimi, a specialist in psychiatry at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, said, “No age, gender, ethnic, or socioeconomic group remains unaffected from the stress resulting from the pandemic.”

However, some are affected more strongly than others.

“Research shows that women and minorities remain the most affected compared to other groups,” Kazimi said.

“Women who work from home have been noted to experience more stress than their male counterparts, given the responsibilities of working from home and managing child care responsibilities,” she said.

Kazimi further noted that people of color tend to have lower access to mental healthcare services, even though they have similar rates of behavioral health disorders as the general population.

In addition, the Stress in America Survey highlighted another group that may be at greater risk during the pandemic: Gen Z teens and young adults.

“The statistics in the report are alarming,” Kazimi said. “Half of young Generation Z teens have said that the pandemic has affected their outlook on their future, with a similar number saying that it’s made their futures seem downright ‘impossible.’”

Kazimi said this crisis in mental health is due to “changes in their environment and events that are supposed to prepare them for adulthood.”

“Life milestones, like leaving home for college, getting married, celebrating graduations, and taking summer vacations have, for many, been canceled or delayed,” she explained.

For others, the pandemic has led to the deaths of their older relatives or caregivers and a subsequent lack of support.

“The deterioration in the economy has further heightened insecurities as it makes it more difficult that one can graduate school or university, go into full-time employment, or own a house one day,” Kazimi said.

How to better deal with stress going forward

Mary Kate Schutt, program coordinator for the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said that “self-care and connectedness are keys to long-term resilience.”

“In order to maintain good mental health over the long term, people should find ways to connect with loved ones and, importantly, find ways to be of service,” Schutt said.

“Having a sense of purpose is enormous. It allows people to cope with a lot of adversity,” she said.

Schutt further recommended that people make sure they are exercising, getting good sleep, and eating well.

Finally, she suggested that people limit their screen time and avoid getting overloaded with information that they're unable to do anything about, as well as making sure that information is coming from reliable sources.