It comes as no surprise that we’re stressed. One in four Canadians cite stress as the reason for leaving their job, while 73 per cent of all working adults aged 20 to 64 report at least some level of stress.
According to Statistics Canada, 23 per cent of people over the age of 15 report that most days are “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful, and that number rises to 30 per cent among the 35 to 54 age group.
Work is the leading cause of stress among our population, followed (albeit far behind) by finances, but the addition of new modern concerns — like terrorism and the state of the environment — are adding to the load. In addition, they’re changing how we as a society look at stress and who we consider to be the most stressed among us.
Stress is no longer a white-collar affliction
The General Social Survey conducted in 2010 found that educated, white-collar professionals were more likely to report their job as the largest source of stress, 45 per cent of whom had an annual income of $100,000 or more; immigrants, visible minority groups and those without a post-secondary education were more likely to pin their stress on finances.
“Initially the message was clear: people doing important or difficult work under pressure were particularly susceptible,” Jill Kirby, a teaching fellow at the University of Sussex, wrote in The Conversation. “The Daily Mirror carried stories about the risk to students from elite universities and suggested that ‘the boss got more ‘stress disorders’ than those working under him.'”
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Over time, society began to grasp just how far-reaching the hand of stress could be. As Daniel Akst wrote in the New York Times in 2004, traditionally, the media painted the most stressed population as educated, middle-class professionals who, in fact, had the luxury of making choices that would lead to less stress.
But that largely glossed over the lower classes who had more pressing issues that precluded them from de-stressing:
“Those who are paid $7 or $8 an hour don’t have health insurance and lack the skills or education to better their lot.”
Add to that life-altering events that worked to shake Westerners’ sense of security in the world, and stress was suddenly democratized.
“Events like 9/11 made terrorism global, and that transcended a lot of cultural perceptions and definitions of stress,” says Dr. Richard Amaral, a registered psychologist in Markham, Ont. “Suddenly, people of all financial and social status were now susceptible and we realized how vulnerable all of society was. That kind of awareness brought the concept of stress to the forefront for people of all races and socioeconomic status.”
But the profile of those most susceptible to stress and its negative outcomes has been further refined in recent years. Here’s what we know today.
Young people are more stressed than ever
For starters, young people are excessively stressed out these days. A study published in December in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that there was a 33 per cent spike in two types of perfectionism among college students in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.: “self-oriented,” or having high expectations of yourself, and “other-oriented,” where they have rigorous standards for others.
In its most acute forms, the researchers say, the stress of perfectionism can lead to eating disorders, high blood pressure, depression and thoughts of suicide.
“The younger generation feels a lot more stress today than they did in the past,” says Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
“There are worries about being educated and not being able to find a job; concerns about cost of living and debt that’s causing them to live with their parents longer. All this translates to more stress. And we know that 70 per cent of mental health problems are onset in younger years.”
The advent of technology adds another layer to young people’s stress, experts say. For one thing, it makes them more susceptible to cyberbullying, and for another, it is affecting their ability to focus and relax.
“A lot of young people are having difficulty maintaining their attention span because they’re always looking to see what’s coming through on social media,” Amaral says.
Racialized and impoverished women are especially vulnerable
Recent research suggests that people of colour, especially mothers and their babies, are particularly vulnerable to the health hazards brought on by stress. Faculty at the University of West Florida (UWF) announced in March they would conduct an exploratory study to examine chronic stress in mothers to understand if stressors like sexism, racism, discrimination and poverty were at the root of poor health outcomes for mothers and their babies.
“Discrimination can be embodied,” Dr. Meredith Marten, an assistant professor of anthropology at UWF and a lead author of the study, tells Global News. “Experiences of chronic stress, which engage the human stress response, can lead over time to poor health outcomes, particularly cardiovascular conditions and immune suppression, among others.”
“People who experience more discrimination and encounter racism have a higher risk for negative health outcomes, in part because of the stressor of experiencing discrimination.”
Although Marten was unable to share any conclusions from her study as it’s still too early to report data, she said that concerns for “black sons and their safety as they grow older has been one issue frequently mentioned.”
A mother’s stress can affect her baby’s brain development
Researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit have found that a mother’s stress levels directly impact the brain development of babies in-utero — specifically that her stress can change the neural connectivity of her unborn baby’s brain.
Researchers used fetal imaging to examine 47 fetuses between the 30th and 37th week of gestation in women from a high-stress urban setting, many of whom reported high levels of anxiety, depression, worry and stress. They found that in the mothers who reported high stress, their fetuses showed a reduced efficiency in how their neural functional systems are organized.
This suggests that the brains of these fetuses don’t develop in a simple sequence (i.e. vision, motor), but perhaps in a more complicated system that could compromise the baby’s stress responses.
Our stress is contagious
When it comes down to it, stress is among our greatest health threats. It’s been linked to complications like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. It can also present immune issues, higher risk of infertility and miscarriage, headaches, muscle tension or pain, anxiety and depression.
What’s worse, a small study conducted at the University of Calgary has found that stress can be contagious. Published in the journal, Nature Neuroscience, researchers examined pairs of sibling mice, one of which was exposed to stress while the other was relaxing in a cage, and found that once reunited, the chemical stress signal was transferred to the non-stressed mouse.
Considering what’s already known about chronic stress and its effects on the hippocampus (the learning and memory section) of the brain — that long-term stress can weaken the connection between neurons, and diminish memory and learning ability — it is noteworthy that this effect can be transferred from the stressed party to a neutral one.
“The neurons that control the brain’s response to stress showed changes in unstressed partners that were identical to those we measured in the stressed mice,” lead study author and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Calgary, Toni-Lee Sterley, said to Medical News Today.
However, there’s good news for females: researchers discovered that stressed female mice were able to reverse the negative effects of stress by hanging out with non-stressed partners. An effect that was exclusive to the females.
“If some of the effects of stress are erased through social interactions, but this benefit is limited to females, this may provide insights into how we design personalized approaches for the treatment of stress disorders in people,” Jaideep Bains, co-author and professor of physiology and pharmacology, said.
“What we can begin to think about is whether other people’s experiences or stresses may be changing us in a way that we don’t fully understand.”