In April of last year we shared information about the Holmes Rahe Stress scale. The scale expresses the top ten life changing incidents that will cause stress. Each item is assigned a value and when you add up the value of the events that have affected you, there is a score that can indicate your risk factor for developing illnesses.

There are two scales, one for adults and one for non-adults. For the purposes of our exploration we are going to concentrate on the adult scale.

Development of the Holmes Rahe Stress Scale

The Holmes Rahe Stress Scale was developed in the 1960s by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. They studied the medical records of over 5,000 people to determine whether or not stressful events were causing illnesses. These patients were asked to review a list of over 40 life events to determine if there was a correlation between these events and their illnesses.

The doctors continued their research into the 1970s and conducted multiple evaluations which continued to confirm that these events did have a negative impact on overall health. They devised a scoring method that now allows medical professionals to determine the probability of the development of illness in their patients based on their life-changing and stressful experiences. The scale, called Life Changing Units, is very easy to measure. Patients are asked to indicate which of the events have occurred in their life. The associated units are added up and the resulting score indicates risk of developing illness. Scores of 300 or more results in a much higher risk of illness while a score under 150 shows only slight risk.

What adult life events are on the scale?

  1. Death of a spouse: The death of a spouse is often much different than other experiences of death. There are often financial implications that can be immediate and overwhelming. If children are involved, the experience can be even more traumatic as grief needs to take a backseat to survival. For this reason, the death of a spouse has a life changing unit of 100.
  2. Divorce: Dropping down to a unit of 73, divorce has similar implications but they are initiated by the actions of both parties. There are still financial implications but long-term fighting can impact the divorcing spouses as well. There are also legal matters and additional costs. And when it comes to children, they can actually find themselves in the middle of a major battle.
  3. Marital separation: You don’t even need to be officially divorced for a marital separation to impact your stress levels and overall health. While divorce is typically final, marital separation can end in reconciliation but the stress leading up to this decision can have an impact. The life changing units for a marital separation is 65.
  4. Imprisonment: Incarceration for a variety of reasons, major and minor, can cause major issues for stress and illness. While many people believe that this is avoidable, there are reasons individuals can find themselves in trouble with the law for situations beyond their control or due to cultural factors that our society has yet to address. To dismiss the impact of these experiences on stress and health does a disservice to these individuals. It has life impact units of 63.
  5. Death of a close family member: Also at 63 is the death of a close family member. There is no indication of how close or who this individual would be in relation to the subject so it can be assumed that anyone with whom the person had a close relationship with could be counted in this experience. Grief can cause emotional stress that can impact multiple areas of someone’s life.
  6. Personal injury or illness: Half way down the list in the top ten most stressful life experiences on the Holmes Rahe Stress Scale is personal injury or illness with a value of 53. The impact of an injury or illness is often felt in loss of work, the feeling of being helpless, and issues with money related to healthcare and insurance. In fact, a poll released by the Harvard School of Public Health last summer indicated that health was the most common cause of stress in the U.S. last year.
  7. Marriage: While divorce and separation rank much higher on the scale, marriage itself can be very stressful. With life changing units of 50, marriage changes not only the relationship between two people but also the way society views their new relationship, the added pressures, and potential child rearing.
  8. Dismissal from work: We were surprised to see that job-related stress ranked at only 47 on the scale. Workplace stress is a major cause of heart disease and hypertension. However, being fired from a job unexpectedly can be a major contributor to stress and illness. This is the case whether the experience resulted in a major mistake or just a reduction in workforce.
  9. Marital reconciliation: Marriage holds several positions in the top ten life events, but it may be surprising to some people to see reconciliation at 45 units. Many people falsely believe that getting back together with an estranged spouse will be the end of stress, but there are new implications on this already fragile relationship.
  10. Retirement: Lastly, at number ten on the scale is retirement at life changing units of 45. While some people dream of the time when they can retire and pursue aspects of their lives they’ve always put on the back burner, others are concerned about the financial impact of not working as well as the psychological feeling of no longer being needed or relevant.

How to prepare for stressful life events

There are truly very few ways you can prepare for some of these events. For example, the death of a spouse especially at a young age is almost always unexpected. However, there are some things you can do to help manage stress levels overall to prepare for the potential of any of these life changing events. They include:

  • Financial: Money is a major contributor to many of the items on this list so if you can create a finance plan that can help you feel more comfortable about money, you may be able to avoid some of the negative implications associated with loss or change.
  • Legal: For other issues on this list, working with your spouse to create wills that can alleviate any pressure on surviving family members can be a useful tool.
  • Social: Studies have also demonstrated that people with a better support network of friends and family also have a better handle on dealing with major stress events in their lives. Make it a priority to stay connected to your support networks.

Have you been impacted by any of these top ten life changing events from the Holmes Rahe Stress Scale?

Image by Porsche Brosseau via Flickr


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