Americans carry 'collective trauma' from COVID pandemic, survey suggests

Stressed mom


The COVID-19 pandemic caused Americans collective trauma, which predisposes to mental illness and chronic illnesses, according to a new online survey from the American Psychological Association (APA).

The Harris Poll surveyed 3,185 US adults nationwide for the Stress in America 2023 report from August 4 to 26.

"While the early pandemic lockdowns may seem like the distant past, the aftermath remains," APA Chief Executive Officer Arthur Evans Jr, PhD, said. "We cannot ignore the fact that we have been significantly changed by the loss of more than one million Americans, as well as the shift in our workplaces, school systems and culture at large."

Biggest jumps in 35- to 44-year-olds

Respondents aged 35 to 44 years reported the most significant jump in chronic conditions since the pandemic began (58% in 2023, up from 48% in 2019). The same age-group also reported the greatest increase in mental illness (45% vs 31%), most often citing money (77% vs 65%) and the economy (74% vs 51%) as contributing factors.

Respondents aged 18 to 34 had the highest rate of mental illness in 2023, at 50%.

Although 66% of respondents said they were diagnosed as having a chronic illness, 81% rated their physical health as good, very good, or excellent. Similarly, while 37% of adults said they had a mental illness diagnosis—an increase of 5 percentage points over 2019's 32%—81% said their mental health was good, very good, or excellent. The most common diagnoses were anxiety disorder (24%) and depression (23%).

Women reported a higher average level of stress than men and were more likely than men to rate their stress levels at 8 to 10. 

A total of 67% of adults said they didn't think their problems were "bad enough" to cause stress, because others have bigger problems. When asked why they don't seek treatment, adults' top reasons were the belief that therapy isn't effective (40%) and a lack of time (39%) or insurance (37%). Yet 47% said they wish they had help to manage their stress, and 62% said they don't talk about their stress because they don’t want to burden others.

A quarter of respondents (24%) rated their average stress level at 8 to 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, in which 1 means little or no stress. In 2019, 19% gave this rating. The rise was noted across all age-groups except for those 65 and older: 34% aged 18 to 34 reported this stress level in 2023 (+8 percentage points from 2019); 31% aged 35 to 44 (+10 percentage points); 22% aged 45 to 64 (+4 percentage points); and 9% aged 65+ (-1 percentage point).

Women reported a higher average level of stress than men (5.3 vs 4.8 out of 10) and were more likely than men to rate their stress levels at 8 to 10 (27% vs 21%). Among respondents who reported experiencing at least one act of discrimination, 36% attributed it to their age, 28% to their race, and 22% to their gender.

Parents plagued by money worries

The proportion of parents of children younger than 18 who ranked their average stress level at 8 to 10 rose to 33% in 2023 from 24% in 2019. Parents were more likely than other adults to report having more financial problems in 2023 than in 2019 (46% vs 34%), that money caused family arguments (58% vs 30%), and that they are more likely to feel consumed by worry over money (66% vs 39%).

Parents were also more likely to say that their stress is completely overwhelming on most days (48% vs 26%), they are stressed to the point of numbness (42% vs 22%), or are so stressed they can't function (41% vs 20%).

"Stress affects all systems of the body, so it is crucial that Americans know the serious impacts of stress and what they can do to reduce the effect of stressors in their life, as well as receive help from their health care providers, workplace and support systems to prevent further health crises," Evans said.

And the trauma hasn't originated only from COVID-19. Global conflict, racism and racial injustice, inflation, and climate change–related disasters are also weighing heavy on the American psyche, an APA news release said.

Long-term stress is a risk factor for mental illness, may increase sensitivity to daily hassles, can affect life outlook and goals, and alter the body's physiological response to stressors, the APA said.

"Coping with long-term stress requires a different set of skills than adjusting to temporary stressors," the APA noted. "Ongoing stress can accumulate, causing inflammation, wearing on the immune system, and increasing the risk of a host of ailments, including digestive issues, heart disease, weight gain, and stroke."

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