The high cost of — everything: Rising inflation rates are ramping up anxieties among some groups of Americans much more than others, a new study reports.

Women, middle-age adults and people with less education or lower pay are feeling much more stress over higher prices, as well as people who were previously married but are now widowed, divorced or separated, according to findings published May 15 in JAMA Network Open.

“In general, it’s vulnerable populations — people who are more exposed to changing prices,” said lead researcher Cary Wu, an assistant professor of sociology at York University in Toronto.

For the study, Wu and his colleagues analyzed data on nearly 370,000 Americans who participated in the Household Pulse Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The survey data revealed:

  • Women were 30% more likely to be stressed by inflation than men.
  • People who were widowed or divorced were about 50% more likely than married couples to be stressed, and those separated were twice as likely.
  • People with a graduate degree were 40% less likely to feel the pinch from inflation than those with a high school diploma, while those with a bachelor’s were 50% less likely.

As would be expected, family income also played a crucial role in feeling inflationary stress.

About 66% of people earning less than $25,000 felt stressed regarding high inflation, compared with 17% of those making more than $200,000, results showed.

“For people who have lower income, those little increases in this cost of everyday needs is just very impactful and stressful, because every single week or month they have a limited budget for food and for rent,” Wu said.

But age also played a significant role. People between 30 and 50 years old were about 30% more likely to be stressed over inflation than others.

Wu thinks people in this age range could be stressed because they have to worry about not just themselves but their families.

“When people have children, when they have a big family to take care of in high inflation, that’s more stressful,” he said.

A person’s race also plays something of a factor, but it depends on their family’s socioeconomic status, researchers found.

Hispanic Americans were 26% more likely to be stressed than whites regarding inflation, but inflation did not significantly affect Black Americans’ stress levels after taking their socioeconomic status into account, results showed.

These results align with national surveys conducted by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, experts said.

“This study tells us that Americans who earn less are more worried about increases in prices, which makes a lot of sense,” said Dr. Rebecca Brendel, president of the American Psychiatric Association. “It also tells us that Americans who have gone through recent changes are more stressed about inflation as well, which we might anticipate. For example, those who have gone through a divorce or separated or are widowed were reporting more stress.”

The recent pandemic and ongoing state of crisis in the United States might also be playing a role in this stress, Brendel noted.

A recent poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that 70% were worried about the safety of themselves and their families, 68% were fearful regarding identity theft, and 66% were anxious about their health.

“In the poll, paying bills only came in fourth,” Brendel noted, with 65% expressing that anxiety. “That’s still quite high, but it shows that Americans have a lot of stress in general, and we have a lot of work to do to collectively focus on our health and well-being.”

And even recent reports of inflation easing aren’t likely to make stress over high prices fade away, said Vaile Wright, senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.

“While good news could provide some relief, I think what a lot of people see in their day-to-day lives are still high grocery prices, still high gas costs, high consumer costs,” Wright said. “I think until people really feel a difference in their pocketbook, some of these stress levels are going to remain pretty high.”

Wu agreed.

“I think the impact will be long-lasting because people perceive inflation in terms of their daily experience,” Wu said. “Food and restaurants and rent, when those went up, they will never come down. Inflation in terms of statistics will come down, but food prices and rent probably will not come down.”

In the meantime, people will have to grapple with their stress, and the first step is acknowledging that you’re feeling it, Brendel said.

“If we’re having trouble sleeping or we’re finding ourselves apprehensive when we have to make a purchase or we’re finding ourselves constantly checking our bank accounts, those are clues that maybe we should take some concrete steps around financial worry,” Brendel said.

People should start with self-care — basic things like physical activity, social interactions, good sleep and a healthy diet, Wright said.

“You can’t really identify how the problem’s to be solved unless you’re in an emotionally stable place, so that’s always the first place to start,” Wright said. “And then once you kind of have that baseline, then you can focus on what things are in your control.”

Wu expects inflation-related stress for some will only diminish with a better job or a raise in their salary, to match the higher prices they’re experiencing.

Until they get more money coming in, people should consider steps to put themselves on a better financial footing, Brendel and Wright said.

“Can you carpool to save some money on gas? Can you get a roommate? Can you make some different choices at the grocery store?” Wright said. “Just finding small things to change can help reduce some of the stress. It’s that degree of uncertainty and lack of control that really drives our stress levels.”

By the same token, a family budget could help a person manage inflation stress, Brendel said.

“Even if things are looking more expensive at the supermarket or at the gas pump, really looking at how much money do I have, how much am I bringing in every week, and how much am I spending — that may be reassuring,” Brendel said.

More information

The Cleveland Clinic has more about stress management.

SOURCES: Cary Wu, PhD, assistant professor, sociology, York University, Toronto, Canada; C. Vaile Wright, PhD, senior director, health care innovation, American Psychological Association; Rebecca Brendel, MD, JD, president, American Psychiatric Association; JAMA Network Open, May 15, 2023