Long term stress, causes and effects

stylised human figures with clocks illustrating stress

What is stress? It has been defined as a pressure, either external or internal, to do something at which you fear that you will fail. Some stress in your life is unavoidable but it can become an unbearable burden when the degree becomes too high, whatever that level may be for each person.

Stress is accumulated over a period of time and experiencing one major stressful event will not only raise your stress level but it may possibly take 12 months, under normal conditions, to reduce it to previous levels. If another highly stressful event occurs during this ‘recovery’ period, it will add to the level and make it even higher.

Even minor levels of stress sustained over a prolonged period can lead to stress related problems, but higher levels can lead to physical ailments and more severe psychological disorders.

The questionnaire on this page, adapted from the Holmes – Rahe Scale (1967), has been designed to help assess your present stress level. In order to complete this form, determine which life events have occurred in your life over the past 2 years and add up your total stress score. Please note, the degree to which any particular event is stressful to you will depend upon how you perceive it and the scores in the survey, are averaged over many different peoples’ responses.

The years of parenting can be particularly stressful. In a 1996 study of 318 Australian families, ( the most frequently reported stressful life events reported by the parents, were:

  • Another child being born into the family
  • A parent changing jobs
  • A death in the family
  • The family moving house
  • A child in the family being hospitalised
  • Greater financial problems
  • A parent being unemployed

However, those events which caused the most intensity of stress were not rated in the same order and the event which caused most stress in these families was ‘discipline problems with children’, not one of the most frequently reported events. It is clear that rating the degree of stress arising from any particular event, is a very personal one and must be dependant upon other factors than frequency.

So why do some people deal with stress in a more functional manner than others?

  1. They perceive that they have some control over the event
  2. They have successfully experienced something like this before
  3. The outcome is not as important to them, as it may appear to be to others
  4. They can perceive stress as an opportunity to learn rather than an opportunity to fail
  5. They have friends and social support to help them cope

Stress affects everyone in different ways but falls into three main areas.

  1. Emotionally: Causing depression, anxiety or anger
  2. Cognitively: Causing indecisiveness, poor concentration and memory lapses
  3. Behaviourally: Causing insomnia, increase of addictive behaviours such as gambling, overeating, drinking, abuse of self or others and personality problems such as OCD

Once you realise that there are excessive amounts of stress in your life that are causing problems to yourself or others, there are several things that you can do to help control them.

  1. Be realistic about your goals and priorities, and identify those things that you need to do first
  2. Make a list of the stressful situations in your life, recognising those that you can control and those that you can’t
  3. Use your time effectively to deal with those that you can control or influence in some way
  4. Don’t waste energy in trying to control or change those situations that are unconquerable
  5. Allow yourself time to yourself, find a hobby or a technique that allows you to relax
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and share your problems with others
  7. Remember, stress can be positive as well as negative, you can choose how you will react to presenting triggers
Death of spouse100
Marital separation65
Jail term63
Death of close family member63
Personal injury or illness53
Being fired from work47
Marital problems45
Change in health of family member44
Sexual difficulties39
Gain of new family member39
Business readjustment39
Change in finances38
Death of close friend37
Change to different line of work36
Change in number of arguments with spouse35
Mortgage or loan for major purchase (such as a home)31
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan30
Change in responsibilities at work29
Son or daughter leaving home29
Trouble with in-laws29
Outstanding personal achievement28
Spouse begins or stops work28
Beginning or finishing school26
Change in living conditions25
Revision of personal habits24
Trouble with boss23
Change in work hours or conditions20
Change in residence20
Change in school20
Change in recreation19
Change in church activities19
Change in social activities18
Mortgage or loan for lesser purchase (such as a car or TV)17
Change in sleeping habits16
Change in number of family get-together’s15
Change in eating habits15
Minor violations of the law11

TOTAL: ______________


  • Under 150: You are less likely to be suffering from the effects of cumulative stress
  • 150 – 300: You may be suffering from chronic stress
  • Over 300: You are probably suffering some effects of cumulative stress
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