The unknowns and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic has sprung many Americans into stressful situations on a daily basis, be it around job loss or insecurities, health concerns, social isolation or a complete reconfiguration of what a “normal” life looks like. However, younger people in the U.S. are reporting higher levels of stress during the COVID-19 pandemic than older generations, according to recent surveys.
One report from researchers at the University of North Carolina and Harvard Medical School, found that most people–55 percent–reported their life was more stressful in May than in January. The first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in the U.S. in January.
Broken down by age, 18 to 34-year-olds reported the most distress. Stress levels decreased in higher age groups, with people age 65 and older reporting the least distress.
Another study, released in May, found that younger people were reporting mental distress at significantly higher rates than older people compared to the same time period in 2018. Researchers indicate while younger, healthy people are less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus, they are being affected in a number of other ways.
Young people report being worried about the health of older relatives and loved ones, their social lives being significantly disrupted by stay-at-home orders, and their job stability, as they are more likely to have lost their job because of the pandemic.
“This is not simply a matter of not being able to go out and meet your friends. The more impacted you’re feeling by the current pandemic and limitations on your day to day life, the more likely you are actually to be depressed or anxious,” said Sarah Ballou, the director of GI psychology at the Israel Deaconess Medical Center and one of the authors of the UNC/Harvard study.
Worrying about others’ health, in addition to your own, is a major source of stress for many people during the pandemic.
Isabel Perez, 25, lives in a Dallas suburb with her parents and diabetic grandfather who is on dialysis.
“You don’t want to be that person that brings the virus home to your family,” she said. “That’s been a big worry of mine.”
Perez wears personal protective equipment at her job as a dental receptionist and routinely cleans surfaces she touches in her home. Still, her grandfather has to leave the house three times a week for dialysis treatment, and she’s concerned other people might not take the same kind of precautions.
“I can only control my own actions. I can’t control everybody else. I would hope that they would be as mindful as I am, but I I can’t say that for sure,” she said.
Financial difficulties are another key contributor to the increase in stress for people in younger generations. Job loss has been linked to both depression and poor physical health, and millennials and Generation Z workers, who account for about 70 percent of the leisure and hospitality industry workforce, are most likely to have lost a job because of the pandemic.
Nearly a quarter of millennials and 33 percent of Gen Z workers lost a job, were furloughed or had their hours reduced this year– compared to about 14 percent of Baby Boomers, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking.
On top of worrying about job loss, people now also fear losing their company-sponsored health insurance in the middle of the pandemic.
“I feel like I can get out of any financial situation by being crafty, but this has real life health implications,” said Macha Harper, a 39-year-old media producer who lives in Brooklyn.
For many millennials, this is the second time they have taken a financial hit early in their careers. The first was about 10 years ago during the Great Recession, when many millennials were graduating college and looking for their first jobs. Graduating into a recession leads to lower wages for years for those workers, even after the economy has recovered, research has shown.
Now, just as millennials were gaining a “financial foothold, many have seen that position upended with the most recent recession,” said Ana Kent, a policy analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Gen Z — which includes those born 1995 or later — has its own special kinds of stress.
Dr. Eleatha Surratt, a child trained psychiatrist, said the college students she sees at a Washington University in St. Louis clinic tell her they often feel helpless. The pandemic has forced their campuses to shut down and now they are living with parents and other relatives who face greater health risks from COVID-19.
“They feel helpless,” Surratt said. “It’s almost a trauma response. They are backed into a corner and can’t do anything.”
The stress factors millennials and Gen Z face are amplified in minority communities.
Black and Latino Americans have higher mortality rates from COVID-19. They are more likely to have lost their jobs because of the recession. They are also more likely to live in multigenerational households and be essential workers, meaning they have to interact with people outside of their house and then worry about spreading the virus to older relatives.
All of this stress comes on top of the fact that millennials were already more likely than previous generations to have problems with depression and substance abuse, according to a Blue Cross Blue Shield Association report released last year.
Dr. Erlanger Turner, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, warns that the pandemic could push young people toward unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking and self-medicating.
But he adds that the stress itself can be harmful to young people’s health.
“When you have increased stress, it also reduces your immune system,” Turner said. “That might make it more difficult for you to sort of cope with COVID-19 and fight off the virus.”
With the pandemic expected to continue for at least several more months, psychologists are urging young people to find healthy coping mechanisms.
Turner said the term “social distancing” is a misnomer because people can physically distance themselves from each other but maintain strong social connections.
“We know that having social isolation is a risk factor for anxiety and depression, and so we want to make sure that people can maintain some type of social relationships, although those relationships need to be different,” Turner said.
So how do you maintain good mental health through this pandemic?
Many people are turning to hobbies as a way to reduce stress. They are exercising more, walking their dogs more, or learning how to cook new recipes.
Turner and Ballou have some additional tips: Connect with friends through video chats, keep a routine, have patience with yourself, and seek professional therapy if needed.
It’s something Alma Lopez, who recently resumed therapy, recommends. The 35-year-old veteran recently moved to the Seattle area to finish her training as a dietician. Now, the pandemic has postponed her ability to take the final exam and has dampened her job prospects.
“There is nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’m a little stressed out,’” she said.
Are you experiencing stress because of the pandemic? The American Psychological Association has mental health resources that can help.