There are many ways to define and measure stress. You can measure it in terms of chronic stress--the little worries, anxieties, and challenges you face on a daily basis. You can think about how "stressed" you are in your life; in other words, how stressed do you feel when there's nothing immediate to stress "about?" Then there are high-stress events; these are single changes, challenges, or situations that have the power to cause you a great deal of stress all at once.
While all forms of stress require active management, these life-changing events serve as some of your biggest potential challenges. That's partly because they often arise unexpectedly, giving you little chance to prepare, but it's also because of the sheer impact they have on your life. As you'll see, these events can impact you professionally, financially, and personally all at the same time, resulting in a perfect storm of difficulty and anxiety.
Learning how to anticipate these changes, and combat the stress they bring with them, is important--and you're best off doing it long before they happen.
The Most Stressful Life Changes
Stress is hard to objectively measure, and of course, individuals will vary, but the best tool we have to estimate the sheer impact of a life event is the Rahe stress scale, a 100-point inventory on some of life's most unexpected and devastating events.
These are the seven most stressful life changes on that scale, in order from most stressful to least stressful (relatively speaking):
1. Death of a spouse.
You probably aren't surprised to hear that the death of a spouse is the most stressful event on this list. You'll have lost the partner you've likely spent years with, a parent to your children, a financial supporter, and perhaps most significantly, your biggest source of emotional support. There's no easy way to get over this event, but you can start by taking time away from work to grieve, spending time with your friends and family, and finding ways to honor your spouse, such as volunteering for causes they believed in.
Just below the death of a spouse is divorce--which has almost all the same hallmarks, and can be nearly as painful. One of the most important things for you to do during a divorce is to seek emotional support. Reach out to friends, family, and loved ones to talk about what you're going through, or at least distract yourself for a while. It also doesn't hurt to get a good attorney to protect your rights and your assets.
3. Marital separation.
Marital separation is very similar to a divorce, but may not come with the same sense of finality. Accordingly, you'll need to seek emotional support from other people to reduce the impact of that stress.
4. Detention in jail or prison.
Committing a crime and being imprisoned can be enormously stressful, not to mention seriously derail your career. This is probably the most preventable item on this list, so obey the law. And if you do find yourself in prison, make the most of it by finding new hobbies and goals, whether it's reading up on a new subject or working on your physical fitness.
5. The death of a close family member.
When a family member dies (other than your spouse), it can feel like your world is falling apart. It's vital that you take some time away from work to grieve, rather than burying yourself in work responsibilities, and find healthy outlets that can help you cope with the pain (like exercising, meditation, or group activities).
6. A major injury or illness.
Suffering from a major illness or injury can rob you of the things you used to enjoy, and/or limit your capacity to work. To get through an event like this, you'll need to find new ways to occupy your attention--and new things to get excited about. That is, of course, in addition to emotional support.
Marriage may seem out of place on this list, since it's supposed to be a happy event, but living with a partner can take some serious adjustment. Make sure to find time for yourself, and maintain bonds with other friends and family members while you get used to it.
If you're curious, some of the other items high on the list include being fired, reconciling with a spouse, and retiring. General stress management strategies (and of course, support from others) can help you get through almost any of these events.
Stress has the potential not only to make your life subjectively harder and interfere with your career progress; it can also take a significant toll on your physical health. And while some of these events can happen in an instant, their effects can persist for a long time.
You owe it to yourself to prioritize your stress management, even long after the initial event, to prevent yourself from succumbing to them. You can't eliminate the stress in your life, but you can learn to reduce and manage it healthily.