Republished February 2024
(A Toastmasters Project)
Originally published in Forte 2018-2019
Back in the 1960’s, a couple of psychiatrists put together a scale rating the impact of various stressors in life. The Holmes Rahe Stress Scale rates 41 life events, giving them each a number of points. The highest stresses have the largest numbers, called “life change units” (LCU).
Quite a few of the stressors on the scale are actually positive. Pregnancy. Outstanding personal achievement. Change of responsibilities at work. Vacation and Christmas even made the list, although they’re in the bottom three. It’s important to remember that all life changing events cause some stress, even though they may be the very thing that you’ve been working to achieve.
The upshot is that a score of 300 or higher in any given year is considered to be sufficient stress to make you sick.
The stress response is a biological inheritance from our earliest ancestors. They needed the surge of adrenalin from a “fight or flight” hormonal burst when faced with a potentially life-threatening situation. Maybe they needed the courage to face an unexpected encounter with an enemy from another tribe or run from a predator to avoid becoming dinner.
The burst of adrenalin we receive from the command centre in the brain increases our heart rate which, in turn, elevates pulse and blood pressure to fuel the muscles and organs with as much blood as possible. Breath rate increases and the airways in the lungs open, allowing us to draw in more oxygen. Oxygen also infuses the brain, increasing mental alertness and sharpening the senses. Adrenaline triggers the release of glucose and fats from storage within the body, supplying energy to all body systems in preparation to fight or flee.
This is a brilliantly designed biological system. We’ve all heard the stories of incredible strength created by the stress response, like a petite woman who was suddenly imbued with the superhuman ability to lift a car to save her child. Endorphins contribute to this phenomena as well. Those endorphins we love so much after a great workout also kick in during a stress reaction, suppressing pain and giving us the will and stamina to act without stopping to consider that there’s just absolutely no way we can do that.
We, however, do have all that going on and it can be pretty intense when combined with the personal situations we may be dealing with in our lives and, possibly, the internal demons like self-doubt that we need to face every day. One important operative concept here is that the stress response is triggered not only by “real” stresses, but by “perceived” ones as well. In other words, we have to beware of an overactive imagination, particularly when it comes to negative self talk.
Chronic bombardment with stress can have long-term impact, leading to high blood pressure and clogged arties as well as psychological changes that contribute to anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, digestive problems, depression and addiction. It can also contribute to weight gain and obesity in that elevated cortisol levels lead to increased appetite and fat storage. It goes without saying that many of these outcomes exacerbate the problem by increasing stress levels even more.
Try to compartmentalize your stressors into separate entities that can be challenged individually. This is where the Holmes Rahe scale comes into play. Remember that every one of these entities contributes to your total number on the stress chart. We all have unavoidable stresses to deal with. The goal is to remove the stressors that are unimportant and learn to readily recognize what we need to give to ourselves at any given moment to manage the rest.
You can find the Holmes Rahe stress scale here.