Three-quarters of Americans are stressed about this

Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you will have financial stress this year.

Almost three-quarters of Americans are experiencing financial stress at least some of the time, and nearly a quarter of us are experiencing extreme financial stress, according to a study released today by the American Psychological Association.

Overall stress levels have been declining since the association published its first annual stress survey in 2007. But underneath that larger trend, disturbing patterns are emerging.

Widening gap

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For one thing, there is a widening gap in stress levels between low-income and higher-income Americans.

People with incomes under $50,000 and with incomes over $50,000 reported comparable overall stress levels in 2007, at 6.2 on a 10- point scale (where 10 represents extreme stress.) While overall stress levels were lower in 2014, the wealthier group reported overall stress levels of 4.7 and the lower-income group reported a 5.2 stress level, the widest that gap has been.

"Until very recently, with things looking better, wages have been stagnant. When your cost of living continues to increase and your wages don't keep up, the impact of that is disproportionate," said Katherine Nordal, executive director for professional practice at the American Psychological Association. "Those of us who are fortunate enough to be in the $50,000-plus category, we have more options or discretion about how we spend money, for the most part."

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Money stress and health

Higher financial stress levels have worrisome health implications, according to the report, which is titled "Paying With Our Health." Lower-income Americans reporting financial stress of 8 or more on a 10-point scale are distinctly more likely than lower-income Americans with low financial stress to spend excessive time watching TV or surfing the Internet, and they are more than twice as likely to overeat, drink or smoke.

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Americans with high levels of financial stress may be harming their health in other ways too. Some 12 percent of respondents said they had skipped going to the doctor at some point in the past year because of financial pressures, and 9 percent had considered doing so. Almost a third of the respondents said their financial situation prevented them from living a healthy lifestyle.

Those behaviors will have a major impact on the long-term health of those stressed-out Americans, Nordal said. "About 40 percent of health-care outcomes are driven by individual behaviors," she said, much more than the 10 percent attributable to the quality of medical care.

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Support cuts stress

The American Psychological Association report follows a poll published last July that also pointed to the toll that financial stress takes. In that poll, by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR, 53 percent of respondents who experienced a great deal of stress in the last month said financial problems were a factor.

There is a glimmer of positive news in the report. "For those Americans who feel the burden of stress about money the most—parents, younger generations, lower-income households and women—it seems that emotional support is even harder to come by," the survey found.

But respondents who reported having an emotional support system reported markedly lower stress levels, at 4.8 on a 10-point scale, than people without support, who reported stress levels averaging 6.2. (The American Psychological Association provides tips for managing financial stress.)

Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you will have financial stress this year, so lend a hand.