Daily Hassles are as Toxic to Our Health as Major Life Events
These types of minor irritants are oh so familiar and are constantly triggering your stress response. Research shows that daily hassles affect our longer-term health and mood. In fact, they may take more toll on out health than even major life events like bereavement.
A research study followed more than 1,200 older male veterans for up to 20 years. The researchers found that older men who experienced a high rate of daily hassles were at an increased risk of dying early, just as if they’d experienced more serious life events, like losing a loved one (Aldwin et al., 2014)..The lead study author, Carolyn Aldwin, Direcor of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University described her findings as follows:
"People who always perceived their daily life to be over-the-top stressful were three times more likely to die over the period of study than people who rolled with the punches and didn't find daily life very stressful,"
Why do daily hassles have such a large impact on our health? One reason is their frequency. Major life disruptions don't happen that often, whereas we encounter small obstructions to our life's progress on a daily basis. In a major national survey that asked people about the moments in the day when they felt most unhappy and dissatisfied with life, "sitting in traffic." was the daily event rated as most miserable. When we experience hassles most days of our lives, eventually we get sensitized and start overreacting to them. Road rage incidents are now a fact of daily life and many married couples fight repeatedly about who picks up the mess or does the dishes.
Below are some more reasons why we find daily hassles to be so stressful:
We Perceive Them as Unnecessary or Due to Incompetence
Daily hassles block us from important goals and you see the interference as unnecessary or due to incompetence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck behind all the slow drivers on the one-lane roads that take me to work. I have to watch the way I think about these things. If I start thinking “Why is this person going so slowly? Are they stupid?” or “I could have made that traffic light if they had only moved a bit and now because of them I’m stuck for another 5 minutes,” then I’ve taken a big turn onto the stress highway. I know my clients don’t want to see a therapist who is red in the face and muttering under her breath about incompetent drivers, so say nothing about the long-term effects on my health!
They Are Always There
Another reason that daily hassles can turn into a major source of stress is when they accumulate. You don’t have enough time to recover from one problem before another rears its head. Our brains and bodies are biologically wired to deal with acute stresses, like a robber chasing us, followed by a period of recovery, not a constant barrage of stressors with no end in sight!
I have a great example of stressor accumulation from my own life. Because housing is so expensive in the Bay area, most people have no choice but to move into houses built in the 1950’s in various states of disrepair. In the past few years, I’ve had to spend hundreds of hours negotiating with landlords to pay for basic repairs, dealing with broken dishwashers and washing machines, rat droppings and hornets nests, raccoons and gophers, wiring that goes out in a storm, sewers backing up, broken pipes, leaky toilets, and a landlord we had to take to small claims court. I now totally understand why some studies of stress find that “daily hassles” have more adverse effect on health than even major life events. When there is no time to recover from one problem before the next one hits, your system starts wearing down from the stress.
We May Already Be Worn Out From Major Life Events
A third reason daily hassles can turn into major stress is when you are already stressed by a major life event, and so you have fewer resources left to deal with the unexpected stuff that goes wrong or the day to day turmoil of family life. Many high-functioning executives deal skillfully with major crises at work, only to have their marriages threatened by their negative emotional reactivity and noncooperation at home. It’s as if the continual day to day problems and logistics of the household send them over the threshold of stress tolerance when piled on top of the work demands.
What You Can Do About It?
There are some relatively simple things you can do to reduce the effect of daily hassles on your health and wellbeing. You can either reduce your exposure or refocus your attention so as to reduce their distressing impact. The strategies below should help you to de-stress.
Plan in Advance
One commonsense strategy is to anticipate your daily stressors and take proactive steps to minimize your exposure. For example, you could wake up an hour earlier to get on the road before the major traffic hits, if you have a long commute. If you hate having a messy house, develop a schedule of chores for your household and keep yourself (and your family) accountable.
Change Your Thinking
In Aldwin's study, it wasn;t just the number of hassles that made the difference but how people perceived them. Focusing on daily hassles and ruminating about them can increase our negativity and feelings of helpless. When you attribute someone's behavior to incompetence, bad character, or deliberate intent to harm you, you get angrier. So try to think of more benign causes for behavior that blocks or irritates you. Maybe the driver in front of you is elderly or distracted by her own life stress. Maybe they're being extra-cautious about obeying the speed limit. Perhaps your adolescent didn't pick up their clothes for the umpteenth time because they don't have an adult brain yet and are more easily distracted..
Speak Up For Yourself
You may be experiencing a high number of daily hassles because other people don't do their share of the work. This can lead to a build up of resentment that sours marriages and relationships with co-workers. If your needs aren't being met or you feel you're being treated unfairly, start advocating for yourself. If you use "I" statements and focus on your own unmet needs, rather than making demands or making negative judgments about character, you're likely to be more successful. If there's still no change, decide what you're going to do to take care of yourself and stick to
Develop a daily practice that helps you find inner peace so you are less affected by life's day to day ups and downs. Doing yoga or aerobic exercise, walking in nature, doing creative work, such as art or writing, or developing a meditation practice can enhance your body's relaxation response that puts the brakes on stressful arousal.
Change the Moment
You can change the moment by deliberately changing your focus of attention. One good strategy is to notice the judgments your mind is making and deliberately move into a "notice and describe" mindset instead. What are you feeling in your body? Can you give a name to the emotion that is coming up? What needs are arising? Is there anything you want to let go of, such as bodily tension or attachment to an outcome? These questions encourage a more compassionate relationship with yourself, rather than a purely external focus.
Practice Opposite Action
Opposite action is a technique from Dialectical Behavior Therapy that can help move you through a bad moment. Whatever negative emotions you are feeling, deliberately recall a time when you felt the opposite. If you are anxious, recall a time you felt free and peaceful. If you are angry, recall a time ywhen ou felt loving and compassionate. Try to sink into that opposite emotion and recreate it in your body. This practice an remind you that emotions are changing events in your bodyand mind and helps you to take a briader view of your life and capacities.
About The Author
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Practicing Psychologist and LIfe Coach in the San Francisco Bay area and author of an upcoming book on stress and neuroscience.. In her previous role as a Psychology Professotr, she published more than 50 scholarly works and presented her research at national and international conferences. Dr. Greenberg is often quoted in national media on topics of motivation, positive psychology, mindfulness,dealing with your inner critic, and coping with stress at work and in relationships. She offers in-person psychotherapy and life coaching via distance technologies. Dr. Greenberg also oconducts workshops for organizations.
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Description, AO1 – Life Changes (Life Events)
Definition: Life changes: These are significant changes in a person’s life which disrupt their normal routines. They include both positive and negative events, such as, marriage, divorce, a new job, moving house, etc. A number of researchers argue that life changes are a major source of stress.
Research looking at life changes – creating a method of measuring stress (1964)
Holmes and Rahe (1964) were the first to record the effects of life events. From their work in hospitals, Holmes and Rahe noticed that certain life events in their patients seemed to be associated with stress and poor health (e.g. heart disease). They claimed that the greater the life change, the greater the stress and the more serious the illness.
Procedure – CreatingThe Social Readjustment Rating Scale in order to measure stress:
- Holmes and Rahe examined 5000 patient hospital records and identified 43 life changes that appeared to cluster in the months preceding their illnesses.
- They gathered 394 participants and asked them to score each life event in terms of how much readjustment would be required by the average person, compared to marriage (to which a random value of 50 was assigned). If an event would take longer to readjust to than marriage, then they were told to give the event a larger score, scores from all 394 participants were totalled and averaged to produce a life change units (LCU’s) for each life event.
- Other life events included occasions such as; having a baby, moving house, starting a new job, Christmas etc…
Descriotion, AO1 of Research to Investigate the Link between Life Events, Stress and Illness – Rahe et al (1970)
Aim: To investigate the link between life events, stress and illness.
- Rahe used a slightly adapted version of the SRRS to investigate the relationship between stress and illness – Schedule of Recent Experiences (SRE), created by a set of ‘normal’ individuals rather than a group of individuals who were already hospitalised (as in the case of the SRRS).
- The sample consisted OF 2,664 men who were navel and marine personnel serving aboard three US navy cruisers.
- The men were asked to complete the SRE for events experienced in the last 2 years.
- The SRE was adapted to be specifically relevant to military experiences, such as being selected to receive a promotion – this produced a total LCU score.
- During the 6-8 month tour of duty, a record was kept of any time one of the men visited a sick bay on board the ship.
- The type and severity of the illness was also recorded.
- Found a significant positive correlation between LCU score and illness score (+.118)
- Those men who scored low in terms of SRE scores also had low levels of illness whilst at sea.
- As both positive and negative life events were included in the SRRS, it appears that it is change rather than the negativity of change that is important in creating stress. Conclusion: It is the overall mental and emotional effort required to deal with a life event that creates the stress.
Evaluation, AO3 of Rahe’s Research into Life Changes
(1) Point: Further research has provided evidence for a link between high LCU scores on the SRRS and the development of stress related illness. Evidence: For example, Cohen et al (1993) gave nasal drops to participants that contained the common cold virus and also assessed life changes using the SRE. The researchers further assessed psychological stress using a perceived stress scale. Participants were quarantined to see if they did develop a cold. The results indicated that participants with higher LCU scores were more likely to get infected with the cold virus. Evaluation: This is a strength as Cohen at al’s (1993) research further supports the link between life changes and illness.
(1) Point: The ratings for the individual life events on the SRRS ignores individual differences: Evidence: For example, some people hate Christmas and find it stressful and therefore would view it as having a high LCU score (a large amount of readjust would need to take place), whereas others do not view Christmas as being stressful and therefore would view it has having a low LCU score. Evaluation: This is a problem as it means that the SRRS is not individualistic and therefore may under estimate/over estimate individual’s stress levels. In the case of this study it means that the research may not be measuring accurately what it is intending to measure (i.e. an individual’s stress levels) and therefore the research can be criticised for having low internal validity.
(2) Point: A weakness of Rahe’s study is that the reliability of the participant’s recall can be questioned.: Evidence: For example, the life changes approach is generally based on people’s memory of events over months or years. Rahe (1974) investigated the test-retest reliability of the SRRS and found that it varies depending on the time interval between testing. Evaluation: This is a problem because participants recall of past events (retrospective data) may not be accurate and again this could call into question the extent to which the study is accurately measuring what it is intending to measure therefore risking the internal validity of the study.
Description, AO1 of Research into Daily Hassles
Definition: Daily Hassles: The stresses of everyday life (e.g. sitting in a traffic jam, queuing at the supermarket) as oppose to major life events (e.g. marriage, having a baby).
Explanations of why daily hassles lead to stress:
(1) Accumulation Effect: Minor daily hassles (e.g. class test, falling out with best friend, rip new jeans etc…) build up and multiply. This leads to severe stress reaction (i.e. anxiety and depression).
(2) Amplification Effect: Chronic stress (e.g. life changes) makes us more vulnerable to daily hassles e.g. Exam stress might lead to us being less able to cope with minor disagreements with friends.
Daily Uplifts: Definition: Minor positive experiences in everyday life (e.g. someone saying you look good or a positive comment about class work). May counteract hassles.
Measuring Daily Hassles: Kanner et al (1981) devised a daily hassles scale (to assess everyday sources of stress) which had 117 items covering all areas of daily life. Lazarus created an uplifts scale of 135.
Research into Daily Hassles and Illness – Kanner et al (1981) Aim: Kanner aimed to assess the view that daily hassles might be a better predictor of illness than the life changes approach.
- 100 participants (48 men and 52 women) aged 45-67 years.
- Each participant completed the Hassles and Uplift Scale (HSUP), for events over the previous month and continued to do this once a month for the next 9 months.
- Participants also completed a life events scale for the six months preceding the beginning of the study and also for the two-yearly period after that. Finally, they completed it again at the end of the study.
- Two measures were used to assess health and well-being – The Hopkins Symptoms Checklist (assess symptoms such as anxiety and depression) and The Bradburn Morale Scale (assess positive and negative emotions) – participants completed these scales every month.
- The five most common hassles were; concerns about weight, health of a family member, rising prices of common goods, home maintenance, too many things to do.
- The five most common uplifts were; relating well with spouse/lover, relating well with friends, completing a task, feeling healthy, getting enough sleep.
- In general, the hassles and uplifts differed to those selected by another group of participants who were students; for example, the identified more problems related to having too much to do and not being able to relax.
- There was a significant negative correlation between frequency of hassles and psychological well-being; in other words, those participants with fewest hassles showed the highest levels of well-being.
- Kanner concluded that hassles were a better predictor of well-being than life events.
- Hassles were also a better predictor of well-being than uplifts.
Evaluation, AO3 of Research into Daily Hassles
(1) Point: Further research has provided evidence to support Kanner (1981) findings that daily hassles significantly increase the chances of psychological and physical dysfunction. Evidence: For example, Ruffin (1993), carried out a study in Australia and found that daily hassles were linked to greater psychological and physical dysfunction compared to negative life events. Evaluation: This is a strength because such findings support Kanner’s research highlighting that it is the presence of daily hassles as oppose to negative life events make an individual more vulnerable to illness.
(2) Point: More recent research has provided evidence to support Kanner (1981) findings that daily hassles significantly increase the chances of developing both physical and mental illness. Evidence: For example, Bouteyre et al (2007) investigated the relationship between daily hassles and the mental health of students during the transition from college to university. Results showed that 41% of the participants suffered from depressive symptoms and there was a high positive correlation between scores on the hassles scales and the incidence of depressive symptoms. Evaluation: This is a strength because Bouteyre et al’s research supports the idea that there is a relationship between daily hassles and the development of health problems.
(1) Point: Kanner’s research uses a correlational analysis to investigate the relationship between daily hassles and illness and therefore it may not be possible to establish a causal relationship. Evidence: For example, we cannot state that daily hassles cause physical only that there appears to be a relationship between these two factors. Other factors such as smoking or drinking habits could have affecting the findings. Evaluation: This is a weakness because we cannot establish a cause and effect relationship between daily hassles, stress and the onset of illness because of the possibility of a third variable (for example diet, lack of exercise etc…) interfering with the link.
(2) Point: Daily hassles research (including Kanner’s’ research) uses retrospective data. Evidence: For example, in order to calculate a daily hassles score, participants are encouraged to think back to daily hassles they have experienced usually over the previous month, this could result in the recall of inaccurate memories as memory is reconstructive. Evaluation: This is problematic because the data generated might be unreliable and therefore it is possible to question the relationship between daily hassles, the development of illness and stress.