19 December 2011

The Science of Understanding Stress

Whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.

Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of over 5,000 medical patients as a way to determine whether stressful events might cause illnesses. Based on their 1967 study, the two psychiatrists came up with the Holmes and Rahe stress scale is a list of 43 stressful life events that can contribute to illness (see end of article) .

Stress is usually associated as a product of problems, tensions, worries, and pressure in one's life. As generally defined in wikipedia; stress is not directly created by external events, but instead by the internal perceptions that cause an individual to have anxiety/negative emotions surrounding a situation. People experience stress, or perceive things as threatening, when they do not believe that their resources for coping with situations are enough for what the circumstances demand.

Mark D. Seery of the University at Buffalo published a paper on adversity and resilience which appears in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Seery says, a lot of ideas that seem like common sense aren't supported by scientific evidence.

In there, he notes that while many traumatic experiences like assault, hurricanes, or bereavement can cause damage to a person psychologically, small amounts of trauma may help that person develop resilience and cope with heavier situations.

Video: What is stress?

Research have shown that extremely negative experiences are bad. Serious events like the death of a child or parent, a natural disaster, being physically attacked, experiencing sexual abuse, or being forcibly separated from family, can cause psychological problems. According to Seery and his colleagues, some research have even wrongly suggested that the best way to go through life is having nothing ever happen to you. This view is unrealistic and not even healthy for one's well-being.

In one study, they found that people who coped better with traumatic experiences are those who went through previous negative events. Another study found that people with chronic back pain were able to get around better if they had experienced some serious adversity, whereas people with either a lot of adversity or none at all were more impaired.

One possibility for this pattern is that people who have been through difficult experiences have had a chance to develop their ability to cope. "The idea is that negative life experiences can toughen people, making them better able to manage subsequent difficulties," Seery says. In addition, people who get through bad events may have tested out their social network, learning how to get help when they need it.

Video: Dr. Robert Sapolsky - sometimes "the right stress" can make us feel stimulated

With his research, Seery isn't telling parents to abuse their kids so they'll grow up to be well-adjusted adults. "Negative events have negative effects," he says. "I really look at this as being a silver lining. Just because something bad has happened to someone doesn't mean they're doomed to be damaged from that point on.", Seery says.

Video: Coping With Stress

The Holmes And Rahe Stress Scale


To measure stress according to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, the number of "Life Change Units" that apply to events in the past year of an individual's life are added and the final score will give a rough estimate of how stress affects health.
Life event Life change units
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 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
Begin or end 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

Score of 300+: At risk of illness.
Score of 150-299+: Risk of illness is moderate (reduced by 30% from the above risk).
Score 150-: Only have a slight risk of illness.


A modified scale has also been developed for non-adults. Similar to the adult scale, stress points for life events in the past year are added and compared to the rough estimate of how stress affects health.
Life Event Life Change Units
Death of parent 100
Unplanned pregnancy/abortion 100
Getting married 95
Divorce of parents 90
Acquiring a visible deformity 80
Fathering a child 70
Jail sentence of parent for over one year 70
Marital separation of parents 69
Death of a brother or sister 68
Change in acceptance by peers 67
Unplanned pregnancy of sister 64
Discovery of being an adopted child 63
Marriage of parent to stepparent 63
Death of a close friend 63
Having a visible congenital deformity 62
Serious illness requiring hospitalization 58
Failure of a grade in school 56
Not making an extracurricular activity 55
Hospitalization of a parent 55
Jail sentence of parent for over 30 days 53
Breaking up with boyfriend or girlfriend 53
Beginning to date 51
Suspension from school 50
Becoming involved with drugs or alcohol 50
Birth of a brother or sister 50
Increase in arguments between parents 47
Loss of job by parent 46
Outstanding personal achievement 46
Change in parent's financial status 45
Accepted at college of choice 43
Being a senior in high school 42
Hospitalization of a sibling 41
Increased absence of parent from home 38
Brother or sister leaving home 37
Addition of third adult to family 34
Becoming a full fledged member of a church 31
Decrease in arguments between parents 27
Decrease in arguments with parents 26
Mother or father beginning work 26
Score of 300+: At risk of illness.
Score of 150-299+: Risk of illness is moderate. (reduced by || 30% from the above risk)
Score 150-: Slight risk of illness.

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