The Stress of Life Changes

We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Change is, of course, a constant.  In my life, I’ve just changed apartments and jobs (which is why I’ve been absent).  Two very stressful life changing events, particularly in the hottest Austin summer.  Though not the most stressful, these changes are certainly notable in a year of many personal changes.

Thomas Holmes & Richard Rahe examined the medical records of over 5,000 medical patients as a way to determine whether stressful events might cause illnesses and created the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS).  The Scale lists 43 life events, each assigned a value in “life changing units” chosen to reflect the relative amount of stress the event causes.  By adding up the life changing units for each event experienced in the past year one can predict how stress affects health.

Life event

Life change units

Death of a spouse 100
Divorce 73
Marital separation 65
Imprisonment 63
Death of a close family member 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Marriage 50
Dismissal from work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Retirement 45
Change in health of family member 44
Pregnancy 40
Sexual difficulties 39
Gain a new family member 39
Business readjustment 39
Change in financial state 38
Death of a close friend 37
Change to different line of work 36
Change in frequency of arguments 35
Major mortgage 32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Change in responsibilities at work 29
Child leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Spouse starts or stops work 26
Begin or end school 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in working hours or conditions 20
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 20
Change in recreation 19
Change in church activities 19
Change in social activities 18
Minor mortgage or loan 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in number of family reunions 15
Change in eating habits 15
Vacation 13
Christmas 12
Minor violation of law 11

A total score of 300 or more correlates with an 80% of becoming ill in the near future.  A score between 151 and 299 correlates with a 50% chance of becoming ill in the near future.  And a score of 150 or below correlates with a 30% chance of becoming ill in the near future.

Stress of course can be good and bad.  Even the happiest of events – marriage, the birth of a child, outstanding personal achievements, vacations and holidays – are all accompanied by stress.  And this stress has a serious effect on our health.

The body responds to stress by releasing cathecholamines (including epinephrine/adrenaline and norepinephrine/noradrenaline) in the sympathetic nervous system and stress hormones in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis like glucocorticoids (including cortisol).  These changes can make blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels go up.

Stress can lead to health problems including:

  • Physical pain, like headaches
  • Mental health disorders, like depression and anxiety
  • Memory impairment
  • Sleep problems
  • Digestive problems
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Acne, eczema and other skin problems
  • Changes to the immune system

Interestingly, stress affects people of varying socioeconomic statuses differently. As explained by a brief by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, How Social Factors Shape Health: The Role of Health

People with greater socioeconomic advantage—with more education, higher incomes and/or greater wealth, for example—may be more likely to experience stress in ways that actually have beneficial effects on their health; this can occur when their own sense of being able to successfully meet and resolve the challenges they encounter is reinforced. In contrast, those with less education and lower incomes typically face more frequent and numerous stressors in many aspects of their lives, while at the same time having more limited social and material resources for coping.

So what can one do to manage stress?  Unfortunately, you cannot always predict stressful life events or stop them from happening.  So the best thing to do, take care of yourself.  Eating healthy, getting plenty of rest and exercising regularly can help ease stress and help you be able to deal with stressors as they arise.  Practicing relaxation techniques like mediation and prayer, learning deep breathing exercises, and talking to others like a friend or counselor can also help.  Internalizing the stress, not talking about it or releasing it via exercise or talking can only increase your chances that it will compromise your health.

This year has brought me many changes both good and bad.  My score on the SRRS is pretty darn high; meaning I need to take care of myself.  After all this moving a pedicure was needed for relaxation.  And Reading (I recommend Cutting for Stone) and going to bed early this week have kept my strength up and my mind sane.  Even with this stressful event behind me, I know many stressors are ahead.

I hope if you are finding your life changing for the better or worse, you will take care of yourself.

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another – Anatole France

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2 Responses to The Stress of Life Changes

  1. Carol Troyer says:

    This study is very important, helping people understand how MANY stressors contribute to our life and health. I did my own numbers and am almost blown away as you are. I certainly support this kind of information and am grateful for your hard work. You work too hard !
    Sincerely, Carol Troyer

  2. Jenn says:

    How timely this posting is. While I feel like I do not have as many of the big life changing events going on right now the little things add up. Anyway, I used this today for a friend, so thanks.

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