The Effect of Moving on Physical and Mental Health

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When we say Mr. Smith’s heart attack was caused by the stress of retirement, blame our brother’s death on his anguish over being widowed, or nod ruefully when we catch the flu the week we move, we are agreeing to a belief as old as ancient times: that major disruptions in the pattern of life make people sick.

For most of this century, however, this idea was pooh-poohed by a medical profession bent on explaining illness in purely medical terms: “Physical diseases have physical causes.

Except for a very few stress-related conditions (e.g., ulcers), our emotions have no effect on how our bodies behave.” In the late Thomas Holmes and Robert Raphe decided that rather than simply accepting the unquestioned dogma, they would actually test the “old wives’ tale” that stressful events can make us ill.

They assigned change rankings to a list of events, scores ranging from a high of one hundred for being widowed to lows in the teens for minor upsets such as getting a traffic ticket. Because they felt that the sheer quantity of change itself, not whether the change is bad or good, produces illness, they included both negative and positive events on what became their well-known life-change scale. After testing thousands of subjects.

Holmes and Raphe proved that there was indeed a nonspecific link between outer-world changes and internal ones. People who had unusually high change scores during a short period were more likely to get sick. Depending on their particular vulnerabilities, they were more susceptible to illnesses as varied as cancer and colds.

Not everyone who retires, moves to Florida, and loses his wife is fated for a hospital bill – or even a cold –People vary greatly in their physical stamina and in their capacity to absorb and tolerate change. Events also have very different meanings for different people. As we saw, for instance, it is not true that the man who hates his job is affected in the same way by leaving work as his friend for whom retirement is a catastrophe.

In fact, contrary to what Holmes and Raphe predict, a recent study suggests that happy events may not be illness producing at all. Researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine questioned elderly residents of a public housing complex about their health and then compared their answers with the total number of changes versus the number of negative changes they had recently undergone.

Only the negative events tally was related to declining health, suggesting that it really is our new misfortunes – not our new blessings – that affect our physical well-being.6

So we need not fear the physical consequences of moving. Change in itself does not seem to be bad. However, we do need to ensure that moving will be a positive change in our life.

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