Health & wellbeing

Understanding the stress of life events

Research Fellow Ruth Spence is examining how people deal with negative situations, and the different degrees of stress caused by significant life events

Ruth Spence Middlesex UniversityRuth Spence is a research fellow in the Department of Psychology at Middlesex and a member the University’s Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS). ESRC-funded research being carried out by CATS is showing that life events which threaten our basic human needs cause the most mental strain. 

We all know that being promoted is better than being made redundant, or that relationship breakups are sad, right? But what if you hated your job? Or you wanted to date someone else?

At the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies, we are interested in how people deal with stress. In our ESRC-funded project called CLEAR (the Computerised Life Event Assessment Record) we are exploring what it is that makes events negative. This seems easy at first – most people will agree that being evicted from your home is more negative than winning the lottery – but what about events with more subtle differences? Is losing money more or less negative than losing a photo album? Making a choice between those two options might seem much more subjective – it depends on how much money, what photos etc. – but evaluating events always involves asking questions about the context, even when the answer seems obvious at first.

Porsche Brosseau (Creative Commons 2.0)
Photo by Porsche Brosseau (Creative Commons 2.0)

This is the importance of context. An event can be made better or worse by the surrounding implications and consequences for the individual involved and we are working out what the important aspects of context are – what is it in particular that raises or mitigates the unpleasantness of an event? To date, this vital question has been largely ignored and checklists, which are commonly used in many studies involving life events, assume that all events are created equal. For example, ‘Moved House: Yes/No’ tells us nothing about whether your move (to your dream home) was as stressful as my move (to a cramped flat in a bad neighbourhood).

Thematic analysis was used to further investigate information from intensive interviews on life events. This was used to categorise key aspects of what makes an event threatening (see Fig. 1). We found that threatening events tended to occur in four areas: Relationships (events that could affect either the quantity or quality of close relationships); Roles (we all have roles, whether it be at work (e.g. boss) or at home (e.g. parent) and events affecting the quantity and quality of these were also important); Material Domain (events that involved the loss or potential loss of material possessions); Integrity/Identity (similar to events affecting roles; events that influenced the way we think of ourselves).

Fig 1.

Four basic needs

But why do negative events tend to cluster in these areas? We believe that these areas are related to important basic needs that we all have and events that threaten these are experienced negatively. Of particular importance are: Attachment (we all need to feel close to others and the loss (or potential for loss) of a relationship or rejection within a relationship is threatening); Achievement (we have goals, whether it be something small like getting fit, or something bigger like getting a new job, and events that prevent us from reaching them are experienced negatively); Security (we want to feel safe, both physically (e.g. free from the threat of violence) and mentally (e.g. our future is reasonably predictable). Events which jeopardise our security or create lots of uncertainty are threatening); Identity (we have a picture of ourselves as being a certain way and events that compromise this, for instance, events that involve stigma or physical deterioration are threatening).

Next, we are going to test this theory in our current study of life events. This will involve exploring their relationships (and those of life events more generally) to mental and physical health as well as student performance. We hope this will help validate the importance of these features and improve our measurement of life events – even checklists!

CATS are looking for students to help with our study of life events by completing its online measure. If you’re interested in taking part get in touch by emailing Contributors will receive £15. 

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