Stress is a normal part of life. Stressful events can range from minor, easy-to-manage moments, to major or life-changing events that are difficult to cope with. You’ve probably faced many different life events that have been stressful to some degree.
Stress isn’t always a “bad” thing – it’s simply a human, biological reaction to big life changes. Sometimes, stress can even help us overcome obstacles or solve problems. No one gets through life without ever experiencing stress. Stress is normal.
But what life events are considered the most stressful to go through? And how can we cope with these events in healthy ways? In this article, we’ll break down the top 10 most stressful life events according to psychologists – and give you some tips to deal with them.
How do we measure stressful life events?
The Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRSS) was developed in 1967 by Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. It’s a list of common stressful life events that have been assigned an impact score out of 100, where 100 is the most stressful event a person can experience.
The SRSS is intended to be a tool that individuals can use to assess the stress they may be experiencing. Holmes and Rahe found a positive correlation between impact, or life change scores, and stress-related illness.
Using the SRSS, a score of 150 or less represents a low level of stress, and a low chance of developing a stress-related illness. On the other hand, a score of 300 or more is an indication of a high level of stress and an increased chance of developing a stress-related illness.
Of course, the SRSS does not take into account differences in coping ability which can vary from person to person. In other words, what might be experienced as very stressful by some people may not feel stressful at all for others.
And there are other life events, like abuse or natural disasters, that aren’t included on the list simply because they aren’t as common. That doesn’t mean these events aren’t stressful – it just means they weren’t included on this specific tool.
Keep in mind that the SRSS is a tool designed to predict stress-related illness. If a life event you’ve been through isn’t on this list, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss or minimize the stress you’ve been through.
The top 10 most stressful life events
Below, you’ll find the top 10 most stressful life events according to the SRSS, in no particular order.
- Death of a spouse
One of the most stressful events we can go through is losing a spouse. Grief can bring with it overwhelming sadness and physiological distress.The death of a spouse can feel like you have lost a part of yourself. Research on “broken heart syndrome,” or stress-induced cardiomyopathy, suggests the impact of losing a spouse can be so powerful that the stress of it can be life-threatening.
No matter what the circumstances are surrounding it, divorce is undeniably difficult. Divorce is, in itself, a major change, but also impacts other areas like finances, routines, and moving/relocation. On top of that, divorces involving tense legal or custody battles can add to an already stressful situation.You might also be grieving the life you thought you would have when you were married. It might feel like you have lost a part of your identity, and that you need to start over again from scratch.
- Marital separation
It’s unsurprising that, along with divorce, marital separation is also on this list.Marital separation can be similar to divorce in that it comes with changes to other areas of life. Especially in situations where separation is the result of arguments or tension, a mix of feelings – including sadness, loneliness, anger, guilt, or resentment – can make navigating separation very stressful.
Incarceration, no matter the circumstances, involves giving up your freedom. This is one of the most stressful things people can experience.On top of the loss of freedom, prison – depending on what country you live in – is usually an incredibly stressful environment where you can face a loss of your rights, autonomy, and even dignity. Incarceration is so stressful that people often develop post-traumatic stress disorder from the experience.Even when you’re released, it can be tough readjusting to life after incarceration. Formerly incarcerated people may feel isolated, as though life has moved on without them, or feel stressed from the pressure to adapt to a completely new environment.
- Death of a close family member
Losing a loved one such as a parent, child, sibling, or close friend can be devastating and understandably difficult to cope with. Even if you don’t share day-to-day life in the same way with other family members as you do with your spouse, their death can still create big waves of change in your life.
- Major health concern, illness, or injury
Finding out about a major health concern or being diagnosed with an illness is distressing for most people. You may find yourself worried about how to adapt to life with the condition. You could stress about how it might impact your daily life or future plans, and how you will cope.In the face of a life-threatening or terminal condition, a sense of helplessness or hopelessness might set in. You might experience stress and sadness about death.In addition to the physiological and psychological impact, a major health concern can also involve medical bills that affect finances, adding yet another stressor. And some health interventions – like surgery – can be stressful and traumatic in and of themselves.
You might be surprised to find marriage on this list. Marriage is supposed to be a happy occasion, not a stressful one, right?Yes, marriage can absolutely be a joyous occasion and a celebration of love. But it can also be incredibly stressful. The planning and execution of the ceremony, the process of merging finances, physical spaces, and adjusting to new routines can take a toll on even the happiest couples. On top of that, any big life change is stressful – even happy changes.
- Job loss
Job loss can cause an incredible amount of stress and anxiety. Loss of income is one major source of stress for most people who lose their job, especially if you are financially responsible for others. But you may also feel like you’ve lost your identity and routine along with your job. All of this can be very stressful.In the face of a job loss, a person may also experience grief. Grief is not limited to just the loss of people. Many people’s sense of self and self-worth are tied to their profession. When they lose their job, they may feel like they no longer matter or have value in the world.
- Marital reconciliation
Marital reconciliation is another seemingly happy life change that can actually be very stressful. Reconciliation is complex to navigate. You may have lingering feelings of doubt or mistrust leftover from separation. On top of that, you may also have gotten used to life alone – and making space to share life with someone else can be a stressful process.Reconciling after separation looks different for everyone. For some people, reconciliation may involve navigating new territory or adjusting to new rules and expectations.
Retirement is often seen as a time of celebration and excitement. And while that might be true for some, others may see retirement as a major shift and find it hard to adjust. Without the usual routine of work, some might feel lost, alone, and purposeless.
How to manage stress
Everyone will experience stress at some point in life. Major stressful events like divorce or the death of a loved one can be especially challenging to navigate, but there are ways to cope and manage through these stressful life events.
Follow some of these easy tips.
- Acknowledge it – Don’t minimize or push down how you’re feeling. This won’t make stress go away. Acknowledge you’re going through a stressful life event, and it’s okay to feel unhappy about it.
- Use relaxation techniques – When you’re stressed, your autonomic nervous system creates changes in your body (like faster breathing, sweating, or a fast-beating heart). To counterbalance this stress response, use relaxation techniques. For example, you can use deep and controlled breathing to kick your parasympathetic nervous system into gear.
- Take care of your body – Physical exercise has been shown to lower your body’s stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline). You can also try to get 7 to 9 hours of restful sleep every night – being sleep-deprived makes stress worse.
Also, don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it. Whether you’re reaching out to a friend or a therapist, you don’t have to go through this alone.
Our mental health treatment programs at The Center • A Place of HOPE can help you address every aspect of your health and well-being. Stress is unfortunately a part of life, but we can overcome it together.
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