February 9, 2024

Fighting guilt: How positive life events can also contribute to stress

It will come as no surprise to anyone that sudden, unwanted life changes can lead to us feeling unsettled, stressed and anxious due to the unpredictability of a situation. Losing a loved one, finding yourself out of work or becoming distant with a good friend can all take their toll on your mental health.

However, what’s often overlooked is that these effects can just as easily be experienced after life changes that are generally considered to be positive. Getting married, being promoted and even taking a vacation can all contribute to our level of stress.

One of the most notable theories on this theme was put forward by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe in 1967. Holmes and Rahe created a questionnaire called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) which listed 43 different life changes. Each life change was then given a score based on its severity, e.g. death of a spouse - 100, going to prison - 63 (the full list can be found below).


Whilst these situations are understandably tough, typically more ‘positive’ life events such as marriage (50 points) and pregnancy (40 points) still score highly.

SRRS participants would tick off which life changes had occurred for them in the past 12 months and total up the score. Holmes and Rahe theorised that:

  • If a person had a score of 150 or less they had a 30% chance of suffering from stress
  • If a person had a score of 150 - 300 they had a 50% chance of suffering from stress
  • If a person had a score of 300+ they had an 80% chance of developing a stress- related illness

Several years later this scale was tested on US sailors and the results showed that there was indeed a correlation between the number of life events and increased stress related illnesses.

It should be noted that there are flaws with the SRRS. The individual scores are, of course, generalisations. For some divorce (73 points) can be an amicable or even liberating experience, whereas a minor law violation (11 points) can be a real source of anxiety. Different cultures will also respond differently to different events.

That being said, it remains to be a valid assertion that life changes often associated with excitement and celebration can be a true source of stress for many of us. This often relates to a gap between our expectations and reality. We can build up ideas of what we want experiences to be; a holiday, marriage, a personal achievement; and when that expectation is not reached, it can often be disappointing and/or frustrating.

What often makes this more difficult to deal with, is that we can feel guilty we are not fully happy with something we have wanted for so long, or something many would give their right arm for. This makes us reluctant to talk to others about what we’re going through which, in turn, makes it harder to manage.

A commonly experienced example of this is postnatal depression. Many mothers struggle with not feeling unbridled joy at the birth of their child, or mourn the lack of an instant connection that appears to come naturally to others.

It is vital to remember that, whatever the circumstances, you should never feel guilty about the way you feel. Trying to convince yourself that you feel a certain way about something when you don’t is exhausting and only compounds your stress.

By speaking to someone openly about how you feel, you will find it easier to understand what is making you feel that way. There isn’t a therapist in the world that thinks “really? This is what they’re anxious about?”.

Stress is stress. Depression is depression. Anxiety is anxiety. Feeling mentally unwell does not make you ungrateful for what you have. Don’t waste your energy trying to insist to yourself that you feel fine and should be happy, focus on getting to where you want to be.

If you think therapy might be a good option for you, talk to us at hello@helloself.com to learn more.

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