PUBLISHED: 7:50 PM on Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Don't let sinking economy make you sick
Lately you've noticed a nagging ache in your lower back, sharp stomach pains or a nasty rash that won't go away. Many of us chalk it up to our changing bodies, but these may be signs of stress.

If you're like most Americans, the increasingly dire reports on the nation's economy and fear about your own personal finances are causing physical and emotional problems.

Data released last month by the American Psychological Association in its 2008 Stress in America survey show that 80 percent of Americans said the economy is a significant source of stress, up from 66 percent in April.

As the economy worsens, so does the toll it's taking on the nation.

When asked about the recent financial crisis, almost half of Americans say they are increasingly stressed about their ability to provide for their family's basic needs.

The specific signs and symptoms of stress vary widely from person to person. Some people may have more physical ailments such as the ones listed above, while others may exhibit more emotional signs such as crying jags or hypersensitivity.

In June 2008, more people reported physical and emotional symptoms because of stress than they did in 2007, according to the APA. Nearly half (47 percent) of adults reported that their stress has increased in the past year. More people report fatigue (53 percent compared with 51 percent in 2007), feelings of irritability or anger (60 percent compared with 50 percent in 2007) and lying awake at night (52 percent compared with 48 percent in 2007) as a result of stress, in addition to other symptoms including lack of interest or motivation, feeling depressed or sad, headaches and muscular tension.

Women were more likely than men to report physical symptoms of stress like fatigue (57 percent compared with 49 percent), irritability (65 percent compared with 55 percent), headaches (56 percent compared with 36 percent) and feeling depressed or sad (56 percent compared with 39 percent).

Identifying stress is the first step to overcoming it.

According to APA, the health consequences of extreme stress are most severe when people ignore symptoms and fail to manage their stress well. Psychologist Katherine Nordal, APA's executive director for professional practice, advises people to be more mindful of their stress levels as well as the emotional and physical symptoms of stress.

Symptoms include irritability, problems sleeping, changes in appetite, headaches, stomach aches, intestinal problems, nervousness, excessive worry and feeling sad and depressed.

"People's emotional and physical health is more vulnerable, given the high levels of stress in our country right now," Nordal said.

"Pay attention to what's happening around you, but refrain from getting caught up in doom-and-gloom hype. Take stock of your particular situation and what causes you stress. Reach out to family, friends and trusted advisers. Research shows that receiving support from others is effective in managing stress. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by stress, then consider seeking professional help."

Too often we use dangerous methods to cope with stress.

In the survey, almost half of Americans (48 percent) reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods to manage stress, while 39 percent skipped a meal in the past month because of stress.

Women were more likely than men to report unhealthy behaviors to manage stress like eating poorly (56 versus 40 percent), shopping (25 versus 11 percent) or napping (43 versus 32 percent). Almost one-fifth of Americans report drinking alcohol to manage their stress (18 percent), and 16 percent report smoking.

"With the deteriorating economy dominating the headlines, it's easy to worry more about your finances than your health," Nordal said. "Many say they are handling their stress well. Yet, people report more physical and emotional symptoms.

"If Americans continue to experience these high levels of stress for prolonged periods of time, they are at risk for developing serious illnesses."