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2020 was stressful, but we've seen worse, historians say

The year 2020 may have been the most traumatic that most Americans can remember, but it doesn’t rank as the nation’s most stressful year, according to an international panel of historians asked to judge the matter.

The title of most stressful year goes to 1862, according to 28 American and British historians consulted by Bloom, a self-therapy app that helps users cope with stress, anxiety and depression.

“That was the darkest year in the Civil War, when it was clear that the price had already been high but the Union might still break apart permanently,” said Philip Parker, historian and author of books on world, American and British history, including “World History: from The Ancient World to the Information Age.”

Parker is also a contributor to the book “History Year by Year.”

The year 1862 included battles such as Antietam, the bloodiest single day in U.S. military history, which took a terrible toll on both sides.

The second-most stressful year in American history was 1929, when a stock market crash sparked the Great Depression, which lasted through much of the 1930s.

Tied for second, 1838 was the year when the United States started pushing Cherokees off their lands in mid-winter and onto the deadly trek known as “The Trail of Tears.”

More than 4,000 died on the grueling walk of more than 1,000 miles, according to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

Historians ranked 1919 as the fourth-most stressful year. The Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans. The country was in turmoil as soldiers returning from World War I faced unemployment and competition for jobs and housing, leading to racial violence and labor strikes.

With the Vietnam War raging, riots, protests, violence and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, historians picked 1968 as the fifth-most stressful year.

They ranked 1962 sixth. The Cuban Missile Crisis led to a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, nearly triggering nuclear war.

The historians put 2001 in seventh place. America was shaken by terrorist attacks Sept. 11, which eventually led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They ranked 2020 as the eighth-most stressful year. The year has seen more than 20 million reported cases of COVID-19 in America, more than 340,000 deaths linked to the virus across the nation, unemployment, political division and a bitter presidential election.

“2020 has been the perfect storm of stress,” said Dr. Seth Gillihan, clinical psychologist, best-selling author and Bloom’s head of therapy. “It’s brought disease, deaths, lockdowns, job losses and financial stress, plus culture wars and bitter political divisions. The only small consolation might be that we now have better tools than we used to for dealing with it.”

As devastating as the toll from COVID-19 has been, the current global pandemic pales in comparison to the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death. Caused mainly by bacteria spread by fleas and lice, the bubonic plague peaked in 1348 — the year ranked as the world’s most stressful by the historians.

The Black Death caused parts of the body to die and turn black, and victims often vomited and coughed up blood.

The plague killed up to 200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa. It likely killed at least one-third of Europeans, with mortality rates of about 50% in many crowded cities.

Historians ranked 1944 as the second-most stressful year in world history. The Holocaust was at its height and nations across the globe were engulfed in World War II.

“The Year Without a Summer” in 1816 ranked third. A massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 sent ash into the air that blocked sunlight, causing devastating crop failures, famine, the spread of disease and abnormal rain, snow, ice and frost.

Historians ranked 1644 as the fourth-most stressful year in world history. The Thirty Years’ War was raging among countries in Europe, leading to societal breakdown, food shortages, threats from animals like wolves and wild pigs, witch hunts and torture. At the same time, an economic crisis, series of natural disasters, peasant uprisings and internal war led to the collapse of the Ming dynasty and chaos in China.

The year 410 came in fifth, when the Germanic Visigoths sacked Rome after a series of sieges. Attacks on the powerful Western Roman Empire that encircled the Mediterranean Sea continued until its collapse in 476.

Although the historians ranked 2020 as the eighth-most stressful in American history, they placed it sixth in the ranking of most stressful years globally, citing deaths plus economic and social disruption.

Around the world, the COVID-19 death toll was nearly 1.8 million as of Thursday, according to the World Health Organization.

Based on reported deaths per 100,000 population, the 10 hardest hit countries, in order, are Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, the United States, Mexico, Argentina, France, Brazil, Colombia and Romania, according to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.

The 28 historians consulted by Bloom to rank the stressful years were from universities including Stanford University, Cornell University, University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University in the U.S., and the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, University of London, University of Manchester and University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, plus independent historical authors.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.