The link between stress and health problems is becoming increasingly well-known, but the idea is not new. In 1967, two researchers named Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe conducted a landmark study to measure the effects of stress on health.

The result, the Holmes Rahe Stress Scale, is today widely used to forecast how likely a person is to suffer from a stress-related health problem.

The Holmes Rahe Stress Scale recognizes that stress comes from events both happy and sad. Marriage, for example, ranks No. 7 on the list, which causes even more stress than getting fired, No. 8. This underscores the importance of managing stress whether you’re planning for a wedding, retiring, or recouping from a divorce.

Each life event on the scale corresponds to a numerical value. Add the numbers and discover how likely you are to experience a stress-related illness.

Scores higher than 300 points equate to an 80% likelihood of developing a major health condition in the next two years. Scoring anywhere from 150 to 300 points leaves you with about a 50% chance of experiencing a problem, while scoring 150 points or less points to a significant chance of good health.

Keep in mind that there are no guarantees and everyone manages stress differently. Also, lifestyle factors and a person’s genetic makeup will influence health outcomes, so there is no crystal ball. Instead, the Holmes Rahe Stress Scale is a way to quantify risk and underscore the very real link between stress and illness.

Types of stress-induced illnesses may vary, but include heart attacks, obesity, depression, asthma, and digestive problems, according to WebMD. Stress has also been linked to Alzheimer’s and premature death.

Holmes Rahe Stress Scale: Top 10 most stressful life events and scale value

  1. Death of a spouse (100)
  2. Divorce (73)
  3. Separating from a spouse (65)
  4. Spending time in jail (63)
  5. Death of a family member (63)
  6. Major personal injury or illness (53)
  7. Marriage (50)
  8. Being fired from work (47)
  9. Reconciling with a spouse (45)
  10. Retiring (45)

Other life transitions causing stress include pregnancy (40), a career change (36), changing personal habits like quitting smoking (24), buying a house with a mortgage (31), and even taking a vacation (13). See the whole scale here.

Health events and stress

While stress may lead to health problems, suffering from ill health is a leading cause of stress for many people, according to a Harvard School of Public Health poll.

The 2014 survey revealed that nearly half of those polled had experienced a major stressful event in the previous year, and 43% of those people said that stressful event was related to their health.

Other major areas of stress were general life responsibilities and financial problems. Harvard professor Robert J. Blendon says:

“It is not widely recognized how many Americans have a major stressful event over the course of a year, or how often health problems are the cause.”

Many of those surveyed were experiencing stress not from their own health problems, but from illnesses affecting family members. On the Holmes Rahe Stress Inventory, a change in the health of a family member ranks No. 11, with 44 points.

People with health concerns or who suffer from disability are far more likely than healthy people to experience extreme stress, according to the survey. More than half of those polled with chronic illness and stress reported that stress worsened health symptoms.

While stress and health are closely linked, it’s especially important for people with chronic pain or other ongoing conditions to manage anxiety and find moments of peace.

I scored high. Now what?

Keeping in mind that these numbers from the Holmes Rahe Stress Scale are a measure of likelihood and not concrete predictions, it’s first helpful to avoid stressing out about a high score. Think of a high value as a red flag that alerts you to risk. Fortunately, that risk can be controlled through lifestyle changes. You have the power to manage stress.

Here are a few ways to manage stress.

1. Meditate

Meditation has been found to lessen pain, and it also promotes staying aware of the present moment. Much of stress and anxiety has to do with future concerns and worries, so learning to focus on the breath and stay in the moment promotes relaxation.

You may find it helpful to sit in a quiet room and focus on the breath, or perhaps you may enjoy following a guided meditation. If you’re in the Phoenix area, you may want to visit Clear Light Buddhist Center, which offers weekly meditation classes and other events that are open to people of all religions.

Meanwhile, when you feel stress rise, take a minute to take a minute. Step away from the computer, or away from the situation, and take ten deep breaths. Even just this brief pause will reduce tension and help you gain perspective.

2. Exercise

Building movement into the day may be difficult if you’re experiencing pain, but even going for a daily walk, gentle yoga class, or riding a bicycle can be hugely beneficial for both pain and stress management.

Pent-up energy often accompanies anxiety, and so getting the blood flowing and energy moving throughout the body helps to increase vitality and promote moments of peace and clarity. Spending time in nature has also been shown to reduce anxiety, so combining the two could help you find space from whatever is causing you stress.

3. Practice gratitude

When life turns difficult, the mind often focuses on everything that’s going wrong and loses sight of the things going right.

Stopping for a moment to reframe the situation and think about all the things you’re grateful for helps to alleviate stress, according to WebMD. Even if you’re going through a tough divorce or reeling from a change in your job, be thankful you can breathe, thankful for family or friends or pets, and thankful for food on the table.

Processing the emotions related to a stressful event is incredibly important for healing, but it’s also good to keep perspective and know that whatever you’re going through will pass.

4. Consider professional help

Sometimes, the things life throws us are too much to handle on our own. Therapists can walk you through the minefield of your emotions and help you heal.

If you’re going through a tough time, there is absolutely no weakness in admitting you need help. Your health and future self will thank you for it.

Arizona Pain’s comprehensive treatment plans include the option of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is an effective way to learn new ways of managing stress. Contact us for more information.

Have you experienced a stress-related health problem? Where did you score on the Holmes Rahe Stress Scale?

Image by psyberartist via Flickr

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