What have been the most traumatic events of your life—and how do you cope?
I’m preparing one of my students for her Psychology exams, and we’ve been focusing on Holmes and Rahe’s Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS). In 1967, two American psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, examined the medical records of over 5,000 patients as a way to determine whether stress contributes to illness. By studying the correlation between specific experiences and ill health, they devised a list of the 43 most stressful life events.
Daily life may have changed a lot since the 1960s, but the major life events have not—50 years on, the SRRS remains as relevant as ever. It’s a perfect example of what makes Psychology so fascinating, even to reluctant 17-year-olds: it’s a field that has universal human application. Take a look at the first 15 items on Holmes and Rahe’s stress scale— which of the following have you experienced?
Death of a spouse
Death of a close family member
Personal injury or illness
Dismissal from work
Change in health of family member
Gain a new family member
It’s interesting that divorce and marriage are both considered stressful! Less surprising perhaps that the death of a spouse or close family member also rank so highly. A friend of mine has just lost his mother to breast cancer, having already lost his father a few years ago. How does anyone cope with the death of a parent? It frightens me to think of losing my mother or father (I’m in my thirties, I should be ready for this, right?) No matter what your age, it still seems like the worst thing: not being able to pop round to your parents for dinner, or ring your mum for a chat, or ask your dad what’s gone wrong with your boiler…
Bereavement is one of those things Western society is not very good at, particularly the British. Despite the fact that death is all around us—around 150,000 people die every day worldwide—and will come to us all, we still feel awkward with the newly bereaved. In the only major bereavement of my life (the suicide of a partner, 12 years ago) I noticed how friends and colleagues began to avoid me. Of course I understand: we’re embarrassed by raw grief; we’re terrified of saying the wrong thing. But when someone dies, it doesn’t actually matter what you say; really, what could be worse than what has already happened?
Think of the other big human experiences: falling in love, going through a miscarriage or a divorce, getting a cancer diagnosis, losing your job. Some of life’s greatest traumas are invisible. Take a look around you: who knows whether the person next to you on the train is recently bereaved, on their way to hospital for life-changing tests, or trying to piece their life back together after their wife walked out. It’s the same with mental illness, nervous breakdowns or simple depression: all that invisible turmoil is hidden away inside us.
Affairs of the heart are invisible too. While there is no mistaking those exhilarating emotions when you’re falling in love and lust—that irresistible cocktail of neurotransmitters, dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin—from the outside no-one can see your surging brain chemicals. (Although, recently, my mum told me ‘happiness is radiating off you’—so maybe falling in love isn’t that invisible after all.)
And then there’s the flip-side, when your heart is broken. Society is obsessed with the romantic side of love: red roses, diamond rings and honeymoons, but what about when it all falls apart? The stages of heartbreak are similar to the recognized stages of bereavement: shock, denial, grief, anger, finally acceptance. Most of us are familiar with the ups and downs of a rocky relationship break-up: rage, hatred, numbness, ambivalence, occasional sobbing-jags or revenge-shags. Waking at 4am for weeks on end in pure despair.
Break-ups are even more painful in the digital universe, all those opportunities for over-analysis: is it significant if your ex retweets you? What does it mean if he ‘likes’ your status update? Who knows what any of these mixed messages mean.(As my little sister said the other day: ‘why the hell is that loser endorsing me for skills and expertise on LinkedIn?’)
Pre-Internet, it was possible to cut yourself off: you could throw out their letters, rip up their photographs, hide the painful cassettes of ‘our’ songs, or even make a bonfire of the whole sorry mess and dance around it in the garden. Pre-Internet, you might randomly bump into an ex, but the chances were very low. Now you can summon them instantly on your screen, and track their new life post-you… Is he looking older, more haggard? Why is he smiling without you? Is that lurking woman a colleague, or his new girlfriend?
The physical pain of a broken heart shouldn’t be underestimated: scientific studies have shown that the symptoms actually resemble a heart attack, including shortness of breath, chest pain and elevated stress hormones, which maybe explains why it hurts so much. We all cope differently: some people lose their appetite and the weight poetically falls off them; others comfort-eat their way through splitsville to numb the emotional pain.
How have you coped with break-ups and bereavement? When life gets traumatic do you prefer to hunker down and grieve in private, or open up to others? According to Shakespeare, it’s better to share: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” (Macbeth)