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Stress May Contribute to Ill-Health, but Ill-Health Contributes to Stress

It has been my experience that acquiring a health condition is the single most stressful life event because it can radically affect the whole of your life. For me, it was not just an event. It was life-changing, unpreventable, uncontrollable, prolonged, and enduring.

In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe devised the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (more commonly known as the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale or Life Stress Inventory). Holmes and Rahe wanted to study whether or not stress contributes to illness. The stress scale they devised identified 43 life events where they assigned a value to each event. The Holmes & Rahe Stress Scale became a tool for measuring the amount of stress one has experienced within a given year to identify the risk of illness due to stress. To measure stress, the number of units that apply to events in the past year are tallied to a total score that estimates how stress affects your health. A score of 300+ means: at risk of illness; a score of 150-299 means: risk of illness is moderate; and, a score <150 means: only a slight risk of illness.

The top ten life events listed in this stress scale include:

  1. Death of spouse (100)

  2. Divorce (73)

  3. Marital separation from mate (65)

  4. Detention in jail or other institution (63)

  5. Death of a close family member (63)

  6. Major personal injury or illness (53)

  7. Marriage (50)

  8. Being fired at work (47)

  9. Marital reconciliation with mate (45)

  10. Retirement from work (45)

At first glance, you might question whether or not these life events are ranked in a way that reflects your experiences or that adequately reflects life in the 21st century. Are these life events culturally biased? Can they be applied broadly? Despite its flaws in reliability and predictability of illness, the Stress Scale has remained a widely used instrument in measuring stress (Scully, Tosi, & Banning, 2000; Dohrenwend, ‎2006). Researchers suggest that this scale can predict the occurrence of stress-related symptoms (Scully, Tosi, & Banning, 2000 ).

While it is useful to look at stressors and stressful events in this way, the reality is that stressors can affect individuals very differently. There are many reasons why someone develops a health condition that cannot always be easily measured. We could come up with a number of reasons why someone ends up with an illness or health condition that are not included in this type of stress scale. How each of us deals with the onset of a health condition or with the adjustment to a lifelong health condition is based on many factors. No one person has the same internal or external resources to rely upon.

For the most part, these big life events reflect experiences where we have little or no control, aside from getting married or taking a vacation (which are positive and uplifting experiences that can hardly be compared to having developed or acquired a health condition). The feeling of having little or no control persists if you have a health condition that has affected the whole of your life. It explains the reason why many have ongoing anxiety and stress-related symptoms. Much stress results from the things that we feel or believe we cannot alter or change for the better.

Stress can become a way of life for many, particularly for those suffering from a chronic or lifelong health condition. Stress is borne out of the experience of having a health condition and so it cannot just be viewed as a precursor to acquiring one.We know that stress can lead to poor health and can result in stress-related symptoms, but if someone has a chronic or lifelong health condition, they are in a position where they must negotiate stress on a daily basis and not just how it has affected their physical or mental health. That health condition has impacted their entire life:

  • Can you still work or look after yourself and those who rely on you?

  • How do you deal with the transition from having a career or job to the loss of your career or job and the subsequent effect on your identity and how you then live your life?

  • Do you have the financial means to fully meet your health care, dietary, or basic needs?

  • Does your health affect your daily activities and how you now perform them?

  • Does your health affect your energy levels and how you go about your days?

  • Do you now require assistive devices to perform daily activities?

  • Does your health condition affect your ability to travel? Do you now have mobility issues?

  • Does your health condition affect your physical appearance or how you see yourself?

  • Do you now have to rely on others in ways that you are unaccustomed to?

  • Are you able to get adequate rest and sleep?

  • Can you maintain the home you are living in?

  • Has your health condition affected your relationships?

  • Can you maintain social connections? Have they changed as a result of your health condition?

How can you mitigate the stress from having a chronic health condition? Primarily, keep things simple. The changes that you make have to be changes that don’t require great big shifts in your daily activities. Finding ways to empower yourself helps to mitigate that feeling of having little or no control. Whatever you do has to be right for you. This is why a holistic approach to self-healing can be so beneficial. It aims to help you see yourself as a whole person: mind, body, spirit. When we see ourselves as whole, we value and appreciate our self as a whole person, even if we have a health condition. Utilizing a holistic approach helps you to better negotiate and reduce stress.

Copyright © 2017. Sylvia Carlson. All Rights Reserved.

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