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Major Life Events

Life events are time-limited and episodic in nature, such as getting into an accident, being laid off, being broken up with, or receiving a life-threatening diagnosis. Life events can be events that seem positive on the surface but are in fact quite demanding such as getting promoted at work or getting married. These circumstances occur in a specific moment in time, with an identifiable onset. Although the actual event can be relatively brief, events can have varying long-term consequences, depending on the nature of the event and its sequelae, especially in relation to initiating chronic stressors.

Major life events are typically captured by presenting respondents with a checklist of potential events and asking them to select the ones that occurred in a specific time frame (e.g., lifetime or past year). Various major life events measures exist, each with their own limitations. Wheaton & Turner's (1995) have reviewed major life events measures and provide a detailed discussion on various issues.  There is no measure of major life events that is considered the gold standard. Below we outline several measures that are frequently used:

The Life Events List (LEL; Cohen, Tyrrell, & Smith, 1991) assesses the number and types of stressful life events experienced during the past year, as well as the degree of stress experienced in each. Respondents indicate if one of 21 life events or 3 optional events occurred during the past 12 months. More information is available here

The Psychiatric Epidemiology Research Interview life events scale (Dohrenwend et al., 1982) lists 102 events and is often used in large general population surveys.

Wheaton's stress measure is a 51-item inventory of subjectively reported chronic stressors that have been developed by Wheaton (1991, 1994), available in Turner & Wheaton (1995, see appendix).

There are also more in-depth interview-based measures such as the Life Events and Difficulties Schedule (LEDS), the Standardized Event Rating System (SEPRATE), the UCLA Life Stress Interview (Hammen 1989; 2003; 2004), and the Stress and Adversity Inventory (STRAIN).

  • The LEDS and SEPRATE are reviewed in detail here.

  • The UCLA Life Stress Interview assesses chronic, ongoing stressful conditions in major role domains, as well as episodic stressful life events. It takes 30-45 minutes to administer. More information is available here

  • Major limitations of person interviews are that the process is time-consuming and requires intensive interviewer and rater training. However, an automated online, based on the LEDs, is now available, the STRAIN. The STRAIN is the first online system for a comprehensive and systematic measurement of cumulative lifespan stress. For a detailed summary see our section on measures under development. Read more about this measure here. 

Author and Reviewer(s):

This summary was prepared by Stefanie Mayer, PhD, and reviewed by Sheldon Cohen, PhD. If you have any comments on these measures, email Version date: February 2018


Cohen, S., Tyrrell, D. A. J., & Smith, A. P. (1991). Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. New England Journal of Medicine, 325, 606-612.

Dohrenwend, B. S., Krasnoff, L., Askenasy, A. R., & Dohrenwend, B. P. (1982). The psychiatric epidemiology research interview life events scale. In L. Goldberger & S. Breznitz (Eds), Handbook of stress: Theoretical and clinical aspects. New York: Free Press.

Hammen C, Ellicott A, Gitlin M, Jamison K. Sociotropy/autonomy and vulnerability to specific life events in patients with unipolar depression and bipolar disorders. J Abnorm Psychol 1989;98:154–160.

Hammen C, Shih J, Altman T, Brennan PA. Interpersonal impairment and the prediction of depressive symptoms in adolescent children of depressed and nondepressed mothers. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 2003;42:571–577.

Hammen C. Stress and depression. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 2004;1:293–319.

Turner, R. J., & Wheaton, B. (1995). Checklist measurement of stressful life events. Measuring stress: A guide for health and social scientists, 29-58.

Wheaton, Blair 1991. "The Specification of Chronic Stress: Models and Measurement." Paper pre-sented at an annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, August, Cincin-nati, OH.

Wheaton, Blair. 1994. "Sampling the Stress Universe." Pp. 77-114 in Stress and Mental Health: Con-temporary Issues and Prospects for the Future, edited by W. Avison and I. Gotlib. New York: Plenum.

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