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, 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.
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.
Stressfulness Ratings for Life Events (out of 100)
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
Being a victim of crime: 70
Being the victim of police brutality: 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
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.
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.