Many people say moving house is the next most stressful thing after a family member dying. But is this really true?

At the moment I’m trying to move house. Believe me, it’s stressful. We’ve found a house and have a buyer for our flat, but it seems that was the easy part. Buying and selling at the same time means two sets of estate agents and two sets of solicitors to deal with. Issues come up with the paperwork that could derail the whole process. You mustn’t get too attached to the place you want to buy in case it all falls through. Then again, it’s the biggest purchase of your life, so you need to fall in love with it… or at least convince yourself you have. We’ve only seen the house once. I’ve spent longer deliberating over which skirt to buy.

Friends sympathise, trying to reassure us by saying that it’s always like this; after all, moving house is proven to be the next most stressful thing after your spouse dying or getting divorced. But is it? Is moving house really worse than other major life events, like discovering you have a terminal illness, or your parents dying, or giving birth, or getting the sack, or looking after a newborn baby who doesn’t sleep at night?

Stress test

The research literature on comparison of stress caused by different life events is fairly dated. The best-known scale is the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, developed in 1967 by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. They asked people how stressful they found 43 different events, and from this devised a checklist which weights these events, from 100 points for death of a spouse, for example, to 11 for minor violations of the law. This allows you to tick off the things that have happened to you, and calculate a life-events score. Attempts have been made to use these scores to make a link between negative events, and rates of depression and disease.

If you look at the list, the death of a spouse does indeed come top and divorce is second. But in third place comes marital separation, followed by going to prison and the death of a close family member. In fact, moving house doesn’t feature on the list at all. The closest you get is having a large mortgage at number 20 on the list, a change in living conditions at number 28 and having a small mortgage at number 37.

This isn’t the only life-events scale, but I’ve not been able to find a single one which puts moving house anywhere near the top of the list. It’s also debatable how useful these scales really are. For a start we’re not very good at remembering what happened to us or when. We tend to telescope events, assuming that they happened more recently than they did. Or we forget to include them altogether. When women were asked to check off the events that happened to them each month and then again after 10 months, only a quarter of events appeared in both lists, showing just how easily we forget.  

Is moving house really as stressful as dealing with a serious illness? (Thinkstock)

Is moving house really as stressful as dealing with a serious illness? (Thinkstock)

These scales also come with the assumption that a particular event will have a similar impact on you, regardless of the situation. Losing a job that you love is different from losing one you dislike. Likewise, moving house could be straightforward, or it could mean you’re fleeing a war zone and leaving your country forever. These are hardly comparable situations.  

Add to that the fact that no two people’s responses to a situation will be exactly the same. The idea that a particular type of event inevitably leads to stress was debunked many years ago by the pioneering psychologist Richard Lazarus. There are too many factors at play. It’s not just the event itself that matters, but how you view that event and whether you feel you have the personal resources and support from others to allow you to cope. Both emotions and cognitions play a part. There are many people who thrive on supposedly high-stress jobs, enjoying the challenge and meeting it. Even if you take an extreme event like a natural disaster, only a small proportion of the people involved will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Most people will find a way of coping.

Another approach is to measure, not dramatic life events, but the hassles of everyday life, such as losing things or equipment breaking down. Maybe moving house could fit in better here; there are certainly plenty of daily hassles. If you take all the research that’s been done on the causes of illness, life events only account for a mere 12% of the link, but daily hassles are more closely correlated with illness. The reason for the low figure might be one of measurement. Daily-hassle scales allow you decide whether something makes you feel stressed, rather than deciding for you than an event is inevitably stressful. What matters is how stressful you perceive an event to be, how much you ruminate about it and whether you think you have the resources to cope.  

Pack up your troubles

Where do studies of daily hassles put moving house, then? In a sample of middle-aged adults in the US “property, investment and taxes” comes in at number eight, behind hassles such as concerns about weight, health of a family member, rising prices, home repairs, having too much to do and losing things. Even when you look at daily hassles, moving house doesn’t feature highly.

Studies looking specifically at the stress of moving house are few and far between. Most look at migration, where there are all sorts of extra factors involved. There is a British study where 75% of people questioned said relocating for their job was somewhat, quite or very stressful. But this doesn’t tell us how it rates with other events.

So although it doesn’t feel like it at the moment, there’s little evidence that moving home is the next most stressful thing after death of a spouse or getting divorced. I’ll console myself with that fact, while I wait for the next hiccup or obstacle that stops us from finally moving.

If you would like to comment on this, or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook or Google+ page, or message us on Twitter.

You can hear more Medical Myths on Health Check on the BBC World Service.

All content within this column is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. The BBC is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made by a user based on the content of this site. The BBC is not liable for the contents of any external internet sites listed, nor does it endorse any commercial product or service mentioned or advised on any of the sites. Always consult your own GP if you're in any way concerned about your health.