Between Stress And Poor Health, A Two-Way Street Tread By Many

NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a nationwide poll about the stress felt by Americans, where it comes from and what they do about it. Reporter Richard Knox cherry-picks some of the more interesting results for Robert Siegel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

So a lot of what we know about stress and health comes from an unlikely source. But how big a health problem is stress? Our new poll has some surprising answers. First, it shows serious stress is very common. Half of our respondents told us they've experienced a major stressful event in the past year, and more than a quarter said they've experienced a great deal of stress in the past month. Joining us from New Hampshire to talk about the health implications of this is reporter Richard Knox. And Dick, what does this poll tell us specifically about stress and health?

RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: Well, first, Robert, it's a two-way street. Poor health is often linked to stress, and stress is a major contributor to poor health. That makes sense, but I think our poll goes further than others before in showing just how big this circular problem is. You can think of it as quantifying the interaction between health and stress. And it zeroes in on Americans who have to cope with a lot of stress on an ongoing basis.

SIEGEL: So what does the poll tell us about how poor health contributes to stress?

KNOX: Two things - first, people in poor health have a lot more stress. Sixty percent of those in poor health report a great deal of stress in the past month. That's more than twice as many as among people who don't experience a lot of stress by their own perception. Second, when we look at those chronically stressed out sick people, 4 out of 5 of them say that their own health problems contributed to their stress, and many say a family member's poor health was a factor.

SIEGEL: You mentioned by their own perception. This is self-reporting of stress and self-definition of stress, as I understand it.

KNOX: That's right. These are, you know, people who say, I was highly stressed, or I had a little stress, or I didn't have any stress at all. And it leaves it to them to define what that means.

SIEGEL: What about the other way around? How much does stress contribute to poor health?

KNOX: Well, among people who experience a lot of stress on a monthly basis, the great majority - nearly three quarters say it affects their health. Most of them also say that their emotional well-being suffers. More than half say that stress interferes with sleep, and we know that good sleep is a cardinal indicator of good health. Half of those seriously stressed people say that their stress makes it hard to concentrate or make decisions, which is a measure of cognitive health.

SIEGEL: So if stress is a big health problem, what are people doing about it?

KNOX: Well, one thing that they are not doing about it, apparently, is talking to their doctors very much. And, you know, that's important because everybody, I think, in the field acknowledges that it's important to acknowledge stress and talk with people about what to do, how to acknowledge it, how to manage it. And we found from the poll that stress often doesn't come up when people visit their doctor. Four out of 5 respondents say their healthcare provider hasn't asked about the stress. And even those who do suffer from a great deal of stress - most didn't have that conversation with their doctor.

SIEGEL: OK, that's reporter Richard Knox talking with us about the poll. Dick, thank you.

KNOX: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: This is all things considered from NPR news.

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