When you're in the midst of a crisis, any experience can feel like one of the most stressful life events. But the truth is that some of life's twists and turns are more impactful than others. Although there can be variation from person to person, some events rank higher overall for stress than others.
Thanks to research in psychology, you can predict how stressed you might feel when confronted with certain challenging life events. You can look to the ranked events below to gain more insight into what causes stress in most people, and even how to help prepare yourself for these occurences when you confront them in your own life.
The Top 10 Most Stressful Life Events
In 1967, two psychologists named Holmes and Rahe developed a questionnaire called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), which was used to measure how much certain life events changed a person's life on a scale from 0 to 100, and thus increased their stress levels. After several responses were collected using the SRRS, the scores were averaged and used to rank a variety of life events from most to least stressful.
The SRRS was updated in 1973 when Cochrane and Robertson created the Life Events Inventory (LEI). This scale also measured the impact of specific life events, but include more populations of people and a wider variety of stressful life events that had been excluded from the SRRS.
Both of these scales are still used today to measure stress levels in individuals. Although there is some variation between the rankings of stressful events between the LEI and the SRRS, 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 both the SRRS and the LEI. The stress of losing a spouse is so high that it can actually increase the surviving partner's chances of death and the development of serious medical illnesses, according to a 2020 study from the Journal of Frontiers in Psychology. The study also found that the loss of a life partner is associated with increased rates of inflammation, decreased immune health, and increased signs of biological aging.
In addition, the loss of a partner is also associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as increased rates of depression. And, research shows that the loss of a partner can decrease a person's life expectancy.
On top of losing a strong partnership and a sense of love, happiness, and support, the death of a partner also brings with it additional potential stressors. For example, it might increase financial issues, impact the family dynamic, and increase feelings of loneliness.
According to the American Journal of Public Health, being incarcerated or having a family member that is in jail is extremely stressful. This life event originally appeared on the SRRS at number four and was reevaluated on the LEI as number two.
People that are incarcerated often experience difficulties due to overcrowding, are fed high-fat and high-calorie meals that have non-ideal nutritional values, have limited access to fresh air, and often experience exacerbation due to chronic health issues according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
In addition to the above conditions, incarceration can increase stress on a person and their family members for a variety of other reasons. For example, it could impact the family's financial situation due to a reduction of income, as well as being confronted with legal fees. It may also lead to increased costs for childcare, lower a person's ability to afford nutritious meals, and cause a person to be stressed about the health and safety of their loved one that is incarcerated.
3. Loss of a Close Family Member
Not only is it extremely stressful to love a partner, but it is also very difficult to experience the death of a class family member. In the SRRS, this life event was ranked at number five but was elevated to the third position according to the LEI.
Grief is complex and can be overwhelming for many who have lost a loved one. Research shows that grief is linked to higher rates of mortality and morbidity, as well higher rates of rumination, inflammation, and cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone.
Losing a family member can cause a shift in family dynamics, create tension between relationships, and leave people feeling lost or even unsupported by those around them. It can also lead to someone experiencing complex grief or negatively impact their mental health in a variety of different ways.
4. A Suicide Attempt By a Loved One
This life event was not included in the original questionnaire for the SRRS. However, it was included as an option in the updated LEI, where it falls into the number four spot. When a loved one attempts to take their own life, it can impact the mental and emotional health of an entire family.
Many family members experience feelings of blame or guilt because they believe they did not offer enough support to the family member, or because they feel as though they should have seen the signs beforehand.
A suicide attempt can also cause strain between family members who might fear that their loved one will attempt to take their own life again, or even be angered by the attempt. An attempted suicide directs a person's attention to the reality of the mental health challenges faced by their loved one, and it brings people within inches of having to experience life without that person in it.
Debt and financial stress can negatively impact a person's overall well-being, and potentially cause additional hardships in a person's future. Although this life challenge was not included in the SRRS, "having a mortgage over $20,000" was, which mirrors the importance of financial issues on stress levels. According to the LEI, being in debt beyond the means of repayment is ranked as the fifth most stressful life event.
According to research from the Journal of Frontiers in Psychology, debt has been linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and, of course, stress. Other studies show that debt and financial hardships are associated with a decrease in a person's sense of control over their life, which can create fears about how they will be able to regain their autonomy.
In addition, debt has also been linked to negative physical health outcomes. According to the BioMed Central Journal of Public Health, people who experience debt may also face higher rates of obesity, back pain, and illnesses.
When someone doesn't have a safe place to stay where they can rest and be at ease, they will most likely experience a high rate of stress, which is why homelessness is ranked among the top stressors. Homelessness did not appear in the initial SRRS survey, however, the LEI included the option.
According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, homelessness is linked to several declines in mental and physical health. The journal found that people who experience homelessness are at a higher risk for developing alcohol and drug addiction, mental illnesses, and tuberculosis.
Research also shows that people that are homeless experience higher rates of discrimination, decreased access to food and protection, and lower access to healthcare. Not only is experiencing homelessness traumatic, but it can leave people feeling isolated from family and create a cycle that makes it difficult for people to find housing and employment opportunities, as well as strengthen their mental health.
7. Serious Illness or Injury
It can be scary to be diagnosed with a chronic illness that can change the way you live your life. Personal illness was listed as the sixth leading cause of stress according to the SRRS. However, serious personal injury was ranked 12th according to the LEI, while the illness of a close family member was ranked number seven.
People who experience chronic health conditions experience higher rates of mental health conditions, such as depression, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). And, the NIMH notes that people with depression are at a higher risk for various other health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and even stroke.
Family members might be under stress for an extended period of time or feel on edge in case the illness flares up. People themselves who experience a serious injury or chronic illness might find it difficult to do the activities that they used to do before they were diagnosed, or find that the activities might not bring them the same amount of joy they once did.
When a person loses their job, it can become an immediate source of financial stress. They might not be able to make rent payments that secure their housing and protection or have to take on debt to keep up with current payments. In addition, they might no longer be able to provide the nutritional or educational resources necessary to help their family or themselves thrive. For all of these reasons, unemployment is ranked eighth on both the SRRS and the LEI surveys.
Research from the International Journal of Environmental Resreach and Public Health shows that unemployment is linked to higher rates of psychological distress, such as depression, anxiety, tension, and worry. In addition, the journal found that people who are employed often experience lower rates of self-esteem and decrease self-reported quality of life.
Experiencing unemployment can create tension between family members that might the struggling to make it day by day with a reduced budget. In addition, many people that are unemployed tend to blame themselves for their situation, which can lead to further negative mental health impacts.
9. Marital Issues
The SRRS and the LEI surveys show very different results surrounding marriage as a stressful life event. The SRRS splits the topic of marriage up into several different categories.
For example, divorce is ranked number two, legal separation is third, marriage itself is seven, and marriage reconciliation falls to the ninth spot. However, the LEi ranked divorce as number nine and the break-up of a family as number ten, with topics like marital separation and reconciliation falling to 15th and 34th, respectively.
According to research, divorce is linked to higher mortality and morbidity rates, although there is not enough research to prove that the relationship is not causal. People who have recently gone through a divorce are at a higher risk of experiencing symptoms of depression, inflammation, and high blood pressure. Not to mention that it can cause financial distress due to a change in income, place of residence, and legal fees, as well as create difficulties with childcare and social relationships.
10. Death of a Close Friend
Death has a way of creating mental, emotional, and physical hardships like no other. This is why the loss of a partner and the attempted suicide of a loved one rank so highly among stressful life events. And, it's why the loss of a close friend ranks within the top ten stressors, as well.
The SRRS ranks retirement in tenth place according to its survey. However, the LEI ranks the death of a close friend at number 13, after similar life stressors noted in previous spots, such as loss of hearing or vision, incarceration of a family member, and the break-up of a family.
Research shows that the loss of a close friend is associated with negative mental and physical health outcomes. In addition, it is linked to low levels of social activity, such as visiting with friends and family, as well as increased rates of depressive symptoms, and lower levels of life satisfaction. When you're used to calling the same person every day and have formed a special bond of trust with them, it can leave you feeling lost and isolated when that support system is no longer there.
How to Manage Stressful Life Events
If you have experienced any of these challenging life events and noticed an increase in your stress levels, know that it's okay. The majority of people find these events to be especially difficult to cope with because they can impact the way you live life.
Solutions to any of these stressful life events won't happen overnight, but they will happen gradually. You can navigate through them using coping strategies, mental health professionals, and the support of loved ones. The overall effects of stress can have negative long-term impacts on your health and well-being which is why it's important for you to check in with yourself, be gentle, and do whatever you can to support your healing.