Why Life Changes—Even Positive Ones—Stress You Out

Whether good or bad, a big change can always be stressful.It is impossible to go through life without any stress at all, though we don't enjoy being stressed. Back in the 1960s, psychologists started to study the major events in life that cause stress. Some of the results of this work were surprising, and some were not.

QUIZ: Are You Stressed?

On the unsurprising side, lots of negative life events were among the most stressful things in life-the death of a spouse or relative, divorce, injury and imprisonment were all on the list. Perhaps more surprisingly, lots of positive life events were also on the scale-marriage, significant financial gain, a new job, moving to a new home, pregnancy and vacations, to name a few.

Why would positive life events be on the stress scale? It all comes down to change.

Stress is the body's reaction to situations of danger and unpredictability. Now, danger makes sense. If your world is a dangerous place, you want to be on high alert. But why unpredictability?

The mind is at rest when you can predict what is going to happen in your world. When you don't know what is going to happen, then there is at least some possibility that the outcomes that occur could be bad. And so, we are wired to be extra careful when we are not entirely sure what is coming around the corner. We experience that state of being on alert as stress.

MORE: Your Body, Your Stress

Any new situation-even a positive one-creates this kind of stress. Think about getting married. Early married life is blissful in many ways. You are deeply in romantic love with your new partner. Yet, lots of things have changed. You are probably dealing with a new living situation. You may be sharing a home with a romantic partner for the first time. You are finding ways to be together while still creating personal space for yourselves. All of this change happens at once, and it creates stress.

Of all the readers who took the YouBeauty Stress Quiz, 85 percent reported having gone through at least one major life change in the past year. That's a lot to adjust to! If you're one of these people (or if something is coming up around the corner), how can you manage the stress of change?

The answer is that you have to make the new situation as predictable as possible. And that means that-whether the change is positive or negative-you have to weave it into the story of your life. And the way to do that is to actually tell the story.

Pioneering research by Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues at the University of Texas has taught many people how to harness the health benefits of writing about difficult life events. His work finds that writing a detailed description of the difficult event and exploring your own emotional reaction to it reduces the stress of that event in the long-term. People who go through this writing process have fewer stress-related illnesses than those who do not do this writing.

MORE: How to Journal Through a Traumatic Event

When you are suffering from stress because of a life change, you need to bring order to the chaos. So, when you find yourself in a situation of change, give yourself a few hours over a period of a couple of weeks. Sit down and write about the event as honestly as you can. It probably will not be that much fun to do this writing (particularly if you are writing about a negative event), but it will help you in the long-run. Once you have made the new situation a coherent part of your life story, you will start to get some relief from the stress.

- by Art Markman, Ph.D.

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