Life�s most stressful events

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Stress is your physical and psychological response to the perception that the events in your life exceed your ability to cope with them. It�s also an unpleasant emotional state�one that�s accompanied by immediate physical symptoms we well as cumulative effects on long-term health.

Stress was first defined by scientists who were studying animals. To them, stress was an animal�s physiological response to being hurt or threatened. For human beings, particularly those living in affluent countries today, stress is more complicated. Since we�re not starving or being physically harmed, most of our stressors�the events or situations that cause stress�are psychological in nature.

To understand stress and how to cope with it, pioneering stress psychologists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe made a list of 43 common sources of stress and asked participants to rate the magnitude of adjustment they thought would be required to cope with each one. The result is a list called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale[1], which lists common stressors and assigns a number of �Life Change Units� to each one.

Later studies showed that sure enough, the stressors that ranked highest on the list predicted the subsequent onset of illness[2].

In 1998, the scale was revised using improved methodology, addressing concerns about the relevance and currency of some of the items, and avoiding items, such as �change in sleeping habits,� that might have been better categorized as a symptom or consequence of stress rather than the cause of it. The result was a new scale, called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale-Revised, based on clearly defined life events and excluding anything associated with stress symptoms[3].

Stressfulness Ratings for Life Events (out of 100)[3]

Death of spouse/mate: 87

Death of close family member: 79

Major injury/illness to self: 78

Detention in jail or other institution: 76

Major injury/illness to close family member: 72

Foreclosure on loan/mortgage: 71

Divorce: 71

Being a victim of crime: 70

Being the victim of police brutality: 69

Infidelity: 69

Experiencing domestic violence/sexual abuse: 69

Separation or reconciliation with spouse/mate: 66

Being fired/laid-off/unemployed: 64

Experiencing financial problems/difficulties: 62

Death of close friend: 61

Surviving a disaster: 59

Becoming a single parent: 59

Assuming responsibility for sick or elderly loved one: 56

Loss of or major reduction in health insurance/benefits: 56

Self/close family member being arrested for violating the law: 56

Major disagreement over child support/custody/visitation: 53

Experiencing/involved in auto accident: 53

Being disciplined at work/demoted: 53

Dealing with unwanted pregnancy: 51

Adult child moving in with parent/parent moving in with adult child: 50

Child develops behavior or learning problem: 49

Experiencing employment discrimination/sexual harassment: 48

Attempting to modify addictive behavior of self: 47

Discovering/attempting to modify addictive behavior of close family member: 46

Employer reorganization/downsizing: 45

Dealing with infertility/miscarriage: 44

Getting married/remarried: 43

Changing employers/careers: 42

Failure to obtain/qualify for a mortgage: 41

Pregnancy of self/spouse/mate: 39

Experiencing discrimination/harassment outside the workplace: 39

Release from jail: 38

Spouse/mate begins/ceases work outside the home: 37

Major disagreement with boss/co-worker: 35

Change in residence: 34

Finding appropriate child care/day care: 33

Experiencing a large unexpected monetary gain: 33

Changing positions (transfer, promotion): 33

Gaining a new family member: 33

Changing work responsibilities: 32

Child leaving home: 30

Obtaining a home mortgage: 30

Obtaining a major loan other than home mortgage: 30

Retirement: 28

Beginning/ceasing formal education: 26

Receiving a ticket for violating the law: 22

As you can see above, any life change that requires adjusting your lifestyle or behavior�including positive ones such as marriage or job promotions�can cause stress. Other research has found that positive events cause less distress and fewer physical symptoms than negative ones do[4].

Still, any big life change requires significant adjustment, and knowing the scale of stress you�re facing can help you to understand that you�re not alone, and prepare to meet the challenge.


1. Holmes, T.H., & Rahe, R.H. (1967). The social readjustment rating scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11, 213-218.
2. Rahe, R.H., Mahan, J.L., & Arthur, R.J. (1970). Prediction of near-future health change from subjects� preceding life changes. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 14, 401-406.
3. Hobson, C., Kamen, J., Szostek, J., Nethercut, C., Tiedmann, J., & Wojnarowicz, S. (1998). Stressful life events: A revision and update of the Social Readjustment Rating Scale. International Journal Of Stress Management, 5, 1-23.
4. McFarlane, A., Norman, G., Streiner, D., Roy, R., & Scott, D. (1980). A longitudinal study of the influence of the psychosocial environment on health status: A preliminary report. Journal of Health And Social Behavior, 21, 124-133.