The Top Sources of Stress

Most of us are living with more stress than we would like on an ongoing basis and this can be devastating for our health and our happiness. Dealing with stress should always be a top priority then but this can be difficult seeing as it’s often not clear precisely where all our stress is coming from.

It might sound absurd to think you can be stressed and not know why but in fact this is often the case. In fact, it’s not uncommon to take a while to even realize you are stressed in the first place!

Here we will look at some of the most common sources of stress that can impact on your happiness and your health – often without you even realizing it. We will include both the ‘big’ stressors that take a serious toll on our wellbeing as well as the smaller, niggling factors that can serve to exacerbate these matters and undermine our attempts to overcome this stress.

The Stressful Life Events Rating Scale

There’s no way you can discuss the top sources of stress without addressing the ‘Stressful Life Events Rating Scale’. This scale was created by psychologists Holmes and Rahe as a hierarchy of big life events that impact greatly on our stress levels. This list includes some of the most stressful events that we are likely to go through and rates each one on a scale of 0-100 in terms of stress.

The list is as follows:

  • Death of a spouse (100)
  • Divorce (73)
  • Marital separation (65)
  • Imprisonment (63)
  • Death of a close family member (63)
  • Personal injury or illness (53)
  • Marriage (50)
  • Dismissal from work (47)
  • Marital reconciliation (45)
  • Retirement (45)
  • Change in health of a family member (44)
  • Pregnancy (40)
  • Sexual difficulties (39)
  • Gain a new family member (39)
  • Business readjustment (39)
  • Change in financial state (38)
  • Death of a close friend (37)
  • Change to different line of work (36)
  • Change in frequency of arguments (35)
  • Major mortgage (32)
  • Foreclosure of mortgage or loan (30)
  • Change in responsibilities at work (29)
  • Child leaving home (29)
  • Trouble with in-laws (29)
  • Outstanding personal achievement (28)
  • Spouse starts or stops work (26)
  • Beginning or ending school (26)
  • Change in living conditions (25)
  • Revision of personal habits (24)
  • Trouble with boss (23)
  • Change in working hours or conditions (20)
  • Change in residence (20)
  • Change in schools (20)
  • Change in recreation (19)
  • Change in church activities (19)
  • Change in social activities (18)
  • Minor mortgage or loan (17)
  • Change in sleeping habits (16)
  • Change in number of family reunions (15)
  • Change in eating habits (15)
  • Vacation (13)
  • Christmas (12)
  • Minor violation of law (11)

Holmes and Rahe then go on to state that a total score of 300+ would put you at high risk of illness, whereas 150-299 puts you at moderate risk.

Now, it’s important to recognize that this list is somewhat old, having been introduced in 1967. Today, many people would debate the validity of many of these points. The list was created by assessing over 5,000 medical records and interviewing patients but in reality the results seem somewhat arbitrary and vague. Most of us would probably agree that ‘moving home’ should be higher on this list, whereas something like ‘personal injury or illness’ could cover a wide range of different things. A broken arm is not as stressful as being diagnosed with cancer for instance. Likewise the amount of stress caused by something like ‘sexual difficulties’, ‘retirement’ or ‘trouble with boss’ would depend very much on the individual’s perception regarding the importance of those things and their coping strategies.

Nevertheless, this list does cover a wide range of different sources of stress and is often still referred to for that reason. If you are going through any of these things – or a number of these things – then there is a good chance that they could be contributing to your stress.

Sources of Chronic Stress

Another limitation of the Stressful Life Events Rating Scale is the fact that it focuses on life events rather than ongoing and chronic sources of stress. These might include things such as:

  • Debt
  • Relationship difficulties/dissatisfaction with being single
  • Arguments with friends, colleagues, family members
  • Dissatisfaction with work
  • Antagonism at work/school/home
  • Dissatisfaction with home
  • Bad weather
  • Chronic pain
  • Low self esteem
  • Uncertainty regarding a major life choice
  • Plans to leave work/a relationship
  • Lack of free-time
  • Constant noise
  • Long commutes to work
  • Difficulty sleeping

All these things can have the effect of grating on us and causing us to feel a little more anxious and annoyed on top of the stressful life events that we have to deal with.

Niggling Sources of Stress

Similarly, there are many much small sources of stress that can nevertheless end up being the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ over the long term. These include:

  • Noise (a busy road/dripping tap/ringing ears)
  • Heat
  • Itchiness or soreness (even something as minor as a spot or keys in your pocket that dig into your leg)
  • Blocked nose/cold
  • An untidy house
  • E-mails from unhappy clients/colleagues/employers
  • Pest calls
  • Indecision on what to eat/what to wear/what to do

Again, all these things and many more can be enough to wear you down and when enough of them coalesce, or they occur at the same time as bigger stressful events/sources of chronic stress, they can make it more and more difficult to cope.

Unfortunately, many of the bigger sources of stress such as deaths in the family are unavoidable. But while we can’t change these things, what we can do is to remove those smaller sources of stress that make everything else much worse. Keep your home tidy (or hire a maid), turn off your phone occasionally, invest in some air conditioning and create a system for what to wear at the start of each week and you’ll have just a little more energy and resolve to deal with the big things that life throws at you!

Keith Hillman

Keith Hillman is a full time writer specializing in psychology as well as the broader health niche. He has a BSc degree in psychology from Surrey University, where he particularly focused on neuroscience and biological psychology. Since then, he has written countless articles on a range of topics within psychology for numerous of magazines and websites. He continues to be an avid reader of the latest studies and books on the subject, as well as self-development literature.

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