Can Stressful Life Events Predict Mental Illness?

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

We have known for some time that stress can exacerbate any physical or mental illness. Some weeks ago I did an interview with Dr. Nitin Sethi, a New York neurologist who sees the effects of stress on patients who come to see him for neurological disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis or migraines.
We also know that stress is also associated with an increased risk for such mental and physical illnesses such as:

This list is just a fraction of many medical and mental conditions which are affected by stress.

They say that stress depends upon our subjective interpretation and perception of events in our life. But are there some life events which most people consistently consider to be highly stressful? The answer is yes.

Back in 1967 Psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe looked at the medical records of more than 5,000 patients to see if there was a link between stressful events and illness. The patients were asked to look at a list of 43 life events and check them off if they had experienced any of the stressful life events within the past two years. Each stressful event was weighted with a score. The total scores were then calculated and the higher the score, the more likely it was found that that patient would become ill. This survey is called The Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory or The Social Readjustment Rating Scale and you can take the test yourself by following the link to the stress inventory.

The top ten stressful events listed on the original Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory included:

1. Death of a spouse

2. Divorce

3. Marriage separation

4. Jail term

5. Death of a close relative

6. Injury or illness

7. Marriage

8. Fired from job

9. Marriage reconciliation

10. Retirement

In more recent years the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory was tested for validity in 2001 by researchers and their results were published in Occupational Medicine. This more recent study found that the original list of Holmes and Rahe to be relevant today for the most part but there were some noted differences. Here is the top ten list of life stressors as found by researcher Anne Spurgeon and colleagues:

  1. Death of a spouse

  2. Jail sentence

  3. Death of immediate family member

  4. Immediate family member commits suicide

  5. Getting into debt beyond means of repayment

  6. Period of homelessness

  7. Immediate family member seriously ill

  8. Unemployment (of head of household)

  9. Divorce

  10. Break up of family

It seems that the death of a spouse is still considered the number one life stressor after all the years since the original 1960's study. Jail, divorce, loss of job, and death of a family member are also considered to be extremely stressful events. In this more recent study it appears that financial difficulties or the results of job loss are high on people's list of stressors including unemployment, going into debt, and homelessness. Another top stressor on this list is suicide of a family member. This makes sense since suicide rates have been steadily climbing and especially in recent years.

It seems to make common sense that if you are experiencing any stressful life events that this can increase your anxiety and possibly increase your risk for medical and mental illness. If you are going through any of these difficult life challenges it is imperative that you do seek help from a mental health practitioner to get help for dealing with these life changing events. It is probably also a good idea to see your doctor for guidance as to how to prevent physical illness related to such stressors.

We here on Anxiety Connection
can also help to provide information, resources, and support to help you get through life's many challenges. We would love to hear your point of view now. If you have had the chance to take the original life stress inventory test, what results did you find? What items would be included on your personal top ten list of life stressors? Have you found any good ways to deal with such extreme stress? Let us know your story. Your experience could help someone else who is battling with the same life issues.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."