A life event is a significant experience which can lead to an increase in stress. The subject of the life events is believed to be a less significant factor in causing stress than the amount of disruptive change in a person’s life that the event causes. Therefore, both positive and negative life events which necessitate change in a person’s life can lead to stress. Even an enjoyable event, such as the birth of a child, can be a positive experience, but at the same time stressful for the newborn child’s parents.
Other examples of life events which can bring change include moving home, the death of a loved one, or changing schools.
Life events and their relationship to stress levels have been the subject of research most significantly in the late 1960s, when psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) to measure the amount of change that different events cause, and to assess the amount of overall change experienced by an individual according to the life events that they have needed to adjust to.
In 1957, Dr. Thomas Holmes, a psychiatrist working at the University of Washington, collaborated in the development of the Schedule of Recent Experience (SRE). Subjects would complete a questionnaire designed to record their experience of significant life events, which Holmes and his colleagues believed could be linked to subsequent health problems (Hawkins et al, 1957).
A decade later, Holmes partnered with Richard Rahe to develop a new inventory of life events. Surveying the medical records of thousands of patients, they sought to find out whether a person’s experience of stressful life events was associated with an increased risk of illness.
The researchers asked the patients to identify which life events they had experienced in recent years, and assigned each type of experience a Life Change Units (LCU) score, according to the magnitude of change that it involved. By surveying subjects using the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, and then totalling the LCU scores of the life events that they had endured, Holmes and Rahe aimed to quantify the degree of stress that a person’s experiences had caused over a specific length of time (Holmes and Rahe, 1967).
In 1970, Rahe conducted a subsequent study to examine life events as a predictor of later illness. He monitored the health status of U.S. Navy personnel as they served on a tour of duty. The participants were hence confined to a limited environment in which their differing experiences of life events might be expected to be a key factor in explaining varying stress levels.
Over the course of the study, Rahe used the SRRS to obtain a record of the life events that participants had experienced whilst on duty. Comparing life events with each participant’s health status, Rahe found a limited but positive correlation between the two variables (Rahe et al, 1970).
In 1997, Rahe was awarded the Hans Selye Award in recognition of his contribution to the study of the causes of stress.
Some psychologists have questioned the role of major, but rare, life events in people’s everyday experience of stress. Even people who do not experience any of the events listed in Holmes and Rahe’s inventory may still feel stress and eustress.
In the 1980s, researchers’ focus on the causes of stress shifted from occasional, life changing experiences to minor, routine pressures which can lead to stress. Minor events which cause stress were described as hassles, while positive events were termed uplifts.
Anita Delongis and her colleagues developed the Hassles and Uplifts Scale, a questionnaire to measure the everyday pressures that people endure. Delongis identified a stronger correlation between hassles and participants’ health than with major life events (Delongis et al, 1982).
There is little doubt that Holmes and Rahe’s life events can contribute to stress levels. However, the theory fails to account for the differing way in which individuals experience events. For example, a family gathering may be stressful to some people, but for others it may be an opportunity to relax. The assumption that life events affect everyone in the same way fails to take into account individual differences.
The effect that life events have on stress levels can also be moderated by the coping strategies that a person uses to adapt to a demanding event. Whilst some people employ effective coping strategies to help them through a stressful time, others do not, and a life event can be more stressful to them as a result.
For example, a husband who loses his wife may benefit from being able to spend time with family members and close friends. By contrast, someone who does not reach out for social support and isolates themselves during bereavement may find it even more stressful and more difficult to endure.
Holmes and Rahe’s Social Readjustment Rating Scale ignores the way in which these different coping strategies can affect the level of stress induced by life events.