What Are the Top 5 Most Stressful Life Events?

The top 5 most stressful life events and some tips on how to cope.

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Stress is the body’s reaction to change and is a normal part of our life. Stress may be the result of changes in your relationships, finances, school, health, career, and family. There are many different types of stressors that can affect us and everyone experiences stress differently.

Enduring chronic day-to-day stress can have a negative impact on health and wellness. For instance, it can cause digestive issues, inflammation, a weakened immune system, poor sleep, anxiety, and sexual health issues.

It’s important to be aware of when you become overstressed so that you can manage it appropriately. In addition to daily stressors, there are life events that can cause significant stress. Here are the top 5 most stressful life events and some tips on how to cope with each.

Death of a Loved One

At the top of this list is the unexpected or expected death of a loved one. Everyone is affected by bereavement differently but a common experience is feeling many different emotions.

These can include confusion, shock, sadness, numbness, anger, and even guilt. All of these feelings are valid.

Because the change is so significant to your life, it can be difficult to process what happened and to face a reality without this person.

During the grieving process, the most important thing to understand is that there is no right or wrong way to feel about your loved one’s death. The time it takes to heal differs from person to person. There is no standard way to grieve. 

Some tips to help cope with your loss:

  • Let yourself feel the range of emotions: You may have heard of the five stages of grief; however, research has shown that it’s actually not helpful for you to identify which grieving phase you are in, especially when you haven’t experienced it before. Instead of worrying about going from one stage of grief to another, it’s better to allow yourself to experience the full range of emotions and focus on reaching a mental state of peace.
  • Take time to heal: Healing from the loss of a loved one can be a long journey. You might feel like you want to move on quickly because you want to get back to feeling normal; however, it’s important to take as much time as you need to properly care for yourself. Although you may feel isolated, it can be beneficial to share your grief and talk about your feelings with family and friends. 
  • Remember there is no shame in getting professional help: The death of a loved one can cause overwhelming stress and significantly impact your life. Seeking support such as bereavement therapy can help you work through difficult emotions such as guilt and develop ways to adapt to a life without your loved one.

Divorce or Separation

Divorce or separation from a spouse can cause major stress in your life. Although the decision to end the relationship could be mutual, both partners still need to deal with a host of issues while they move forward separately. 

In addition to the emotional and mental stress, there are legal considerations that need to be determined such as child custody, finances, assets, and living situations.

Some tips to cope with a divorce or separation:

  • Accept your emotions and learn to let go: Ending a relationship can generate many feelings that are difficult to manage. You may feel a sense of relief but then feel guilty about feeling that way. You may feel angry and hopeless. Instead of suppressing these feelings, embrace them and let them go through you like a wave. Accepting your emotions has been shown to be effective in helping others move forward from their divorce.
  • Focus on loving yourself: It may feel like you’ve failed or that you didn’t try hard enough in your relationship; however, it’s important during this time to practice self-care, self-compassion, and be kind to yourself. 
  • Set personal goals: Life without a partner can seem scary but this is when you can reassess your personal goals. What are some things you’ve always wanted to try or learn more about? What are some hobbies you used to love but haven’t had time to explore? It’s time to rediscover these and start enjoying them.
  • Join a support group: It can be helpful to connect with others who are divorced or are currently going through a divorce. A divorce support group can provide further tools for you to cope with your divorce. Also, just knowing that you're not alone can be helpful too.

Moving 

Whether it is for a new job, a change in relationship or downsizing, moving can be quite a stressful event. If the move is unexpected such as needing to leave your home because of a fire or financial struggles, it can be incredibly devastating.

Moving involves practical and logistical factors such as packing, unpacking, adjusting to a different community, and navigating the new locations of services. Even if you’re not moving very far, the emotional and mental impact can affect you, especially if you’ve lived in your place for a long time.

Some tips to cope with a move:

  • Remember stress is a normal part of moving: If you’re moving into a bigger place or with your partner, you may feel like you’re supposed to feel excited and happy. However, moving can still be a stressful event even if it’s for a positive reason. Change is hard for everyone and accepting stress as a normal part of it can help you manage the move more realistically.
  • Plan ahead and stay organized: Give yourself plenty of time to plan your move. It takes longer than you think to label, sort, and pack your belongings. You may dread and want to procrastinate during the process; however, the earlier you start to plan your move, the less rushed and frantic you’ll feel on moving day. 
  • Ask for help from friends and family: It can be helpful to have someone around while you’re packing and/or unpacking. Even if they don’t physically help during the move, they can act as a source of emotional support while you deal with the stress of moving.
  • Hire professional movers: If you are financially able to hire professional movers, it can help reduce the amount of work and stress related to packing, lifting, and transporting.

Long-Term Illness 

Illness and stress have a symbiotic relationship. If you experience chronic stress, your immune system is weakened and you become more susceptible to illness. Stress has been shown to increase the risk of diabetes mellitus, peptic ulcers, ulcerative colitis and atherosclerosis.

When you’re suffering from a long-term health condition, it can cause stress to you and those who care about you. Managing a chronic illness or injury can increase your financial burden and reduce your ability to participate in certain activities. 

Some tips to cope with illness:

  • Learn about your illness: Talk to a healthcare professional about your illness and work together to design a treatment plan that meets your specific needs. Depending on the severity of your illness, it’s important to remain realistic about your expectations. 
  • Take care of yourself: If you’re able to, make sure to get enough sleep, maintain a healthy diet, be physically active and explore self-care practices such as meditation or mindfulness. Ask for help with tasks you have difficulties doing. Avoid using alcohol or substances as coping mechanisms.
  • Seek counseling: There are various counseling options that can help you manage your long-term health condition. These include individual counseling, family and couples counseling, and support groups. 

Job Loss

Losing your job is emotionally stressful as it can bring up feelings such as shame, grief, disappointment, and guilt and trigger self-defeating thoughts. In addition to the negative impact on your self-esteem, you have to worry about your finances and finding a new job. Your daily routine has changed abruptly and it can be difficult to adjust, especially if you’ve been at your job for a long time. 

Some tips to cope with job loss:

  • Don’t ignore your feelings: For some people, losing a job could feel like losing a loved one. You may feel shocked, sad, depressed, and/or angry. It’s normal to feel this way and it’s better to feel your feelings instead of bottling them up.
  • Learn to accept your situation: Try to focus on the things you can control such as your reaction, attitude, and what can do to move forward. Losing your income and benefits could mean major lifestyle changes. It’s important to face your reality and take charge of your finances by making a budget and getting help from a financial advisor.
  • Reach out to your network: Although you may feel like you’re alone in this, you aren’t and you don’t have to deal with this by yourself. Connecting with friends and family will make it easier to cope. Losing your job is more common than you think and sharing your experiences with those you trust can help you understand your situation better and learn from others.
6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality and systems improvement projects, and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services, and women's health. Her expertise in facilitating, storytelling, coaching, and promoting tough and honest conversations provides the foundation for her site, Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve.