What Are the Most Stressful Life Events?

Kirsten Schuder
Sad Father and Son

Certain life events are correlated with perceived stress levels. Surprisingly, many of life's potentially stressful events are measurable, in that when surveyed, most people rate certain life events as being the most stressful or the least stressful.

Top Ten Stressful Life Events

Ever since Holmes and Rahe published their Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), there has been a great deal of interest in how life events impact stress levels.

Cochrane and Robertson created the Life Events Inventory (LEI) to update the Holmes and Rahe SRRS to include more populations of people and more of the most stressful life events excluded from the original. The Society of Occupational Medicine published a study using the LEI that found that even though there can be slight differences between different populations of people, the list is very consistent in terms of how people rate stressful life events.

Both are used today to measure stress levels in individuals. There is some variation between the LEI and the SRRS. However, many of the top ten stressful life events are consistent between the two inventories.

1. Death of Spouse or Life Partner

This was rated at number one on the SRRS and LEI. The stress of losing a spouse is so high, the surviving spouse's chances of an early death increases. A study in the American Journal of Public Health confirmed that the chances of a surviving spouse getting cancer, dying accidentally, dying from the effects of alcohol consumption, dying from violence, and heart disease are in many cases much higher than the general population.

This was consistent for people in their mid-thirties to people in their eighties. Younger surviving spouses were less likely to die from the long-term effects of stress, but were more likely to die within the first six months of losing a spouse.

Often in marriages, people incorporate their lives together. The widow or widower has to relearn how to be on his or her own again. The loneliness, grief, adjustment, and financial worries all happen at once.

2. Incarceration

According to the University of California, Santa Cruz, incarceration is extremely stressful. This appeared originally on the SRRS as number four and was reevaluated on the LEI as number two.

The University of California found that a prisoner is forced to adapt to an often dangerous environment and give up their autonomy. This can have subtle and apparent psychological effects upon a person as they are forced to adapt to the unnatural and restrictive environment of prison.

Prisons are extremely hostile, violent, and dangerous environments. As the American Sociological Association found, prisoners are more likely to die from stress-related illnesses than the general population.

3. Passing of a Close Family Member

This life event appears in the top ten of both inventories.

Elizabeth Anne Harvey elaborated upon the effects of a death of an immediate family member in her book (p. 35). A death of an immediate family member can test the boundaries of a family. Each family has its own dynamics, and each individual person within the family has their own way of grieving.

4. Loved One Suicide Attempt

This choice did not appear anywhere on the SRRS. Death was referred to in general on the Holmes and Rahe SRRS, but details about the manner of death was not included until the updated version, the LEI.

An attempted suicide can put strain on an entire family. As a study from the National Library of Medicine stated, a suicide attempt by another member of a family can shake the foundation of the family members' emotional and mental status. They might feel like they have failed in some way, and there can be a great deal of anguish and guilt between family members and internally toward themselves.

A suicide attempt always has an effect on other family members. The event raises conflicting, confusing feelings. For instance, family members struggle with guilt and anger toward the family member that attempted suicide. Often, the entire family should be counseled in a family member's suicide attempt.

5. Debt

It's not surprising that this item did not appear on the SRRS when it came out. The rates of the nation's personal debt has skyrocketed in the last several decades and has now made it into the top ten of the LEI.

Northwest University found that high debt means poor health outcomes for individuals. Associated with the stress of owing large sums of money, high debt is associated with poorer perceived health in individuals, higher blood pressure (which puts people at an increased risk for heart attack) and higher rates of depression.

6. Homelessness

Homelessness did not appear on the SRRS. When Cochrane and Robertson updated the SRRS to the LEI, they took into account different populations of people.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, homelessness in itself is a traumatic experience. A home is more than just a building. It's a place of safety. Not having a home is disruptive and stressful.

Even if a homeless person or family is in a shelter, life in a shelter is stressful, with problems of overcrowding, noisy environments, and lack of privacy. Moreover, homeless people and families are more vulnerable to violence.

7. Unemployment

This choice was rated at number eight on the SRRS.

The Michigan Family Review found in their study of unemployed auto industry workers, primarily well-paid blue collar workers, that chronic unemployment causes financial hardship. Because of the financial hardship, family relations become strained. Their findings suggested that financial hardship have a disintegrating effect upon a family.

Prolonged periods of unemployment can have a devastating effect upon a person's self-esteem. People tend to blame themselves and think they are doing something wrong. An extended period of unemployment can be doubly stressful because people might take out loans and dig themselves further into debt just to survive for the moment.

8. Illness or Injury

Personal illness was listed in the top ten in the SRRS, but the illness of a family member was listed at number eleven. On the LEI, this was choice number eight.

Biomed Central Psychology explained that family members of a seriously ill or chronically ill family member undergo an extreme amount of stress. If an illness is chronic, family members are under stress for an extended period of time, sometimes even years. This can increase rates of depression and physical illness for the family members who take on a caretaker role.

9. Marital Issues

The SRRS had divorce (2), legal separation (3), marriage (7) and marriage reconciliation (9) all within the top ten spots, whereas divorce and family separation were rated at nine and ten for those using the LEI. Marital separation was rated as fifteen, and marriage was rated forty-first by respondents using the LEI.

Regardless of where separation and divorce lie in inventories, the stress associated with these events have a significant impact on health. The disease rate for chronic diseases such as cancer, coronary disease, and diabetes, increase by 20 percent while a person is experiencing a divorce.

Perhaps the change in how people view marriage is because of the falling marriage rates. People are getting married later than earlier, and only 47% of the population of adults in the United States are married, an all-time low in the last two decades.

10. Retirement

Retirement is rated on the SRRS as number ten, while people rated retirement using the LEI towards the bottom of the list at number fifty-three.

That's not to say that retirement is not without its stressors. A study in the Journal of Gerontology revealed that when measured in terms of "life hassles" instead of life events, retirement was much less stressful than work-related hassles. The predictors of stress associated with retirement were financial influences and illness.

Even with a good retirement plan, not earning an income can be a big adjustment. Many people fear that they will live so long that they will run out of money.

Understand How Stress Is Affecting You

If you or a loved one is going through a major life event and is experiencing a high level of stress, understanding how the stress is affecting you is the first step toward getting the stress under control. Studies show that the effects of stress are very real, and chronic stress can have long-term effects on your health.

Self-assessment can be an effective tool to get your stress under control. Weber State University provides self-assessments you can use to find out your level of stress. Knowing if your responses to stress are within normal range or if your stress levels are off the charts is the first step in gaining control of your stress.

What Are the Most Stressful Life Events?