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Little Steps Can Make a Big Difference to Stress Levels

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A new survey based on research by Patient.co.uk has revealed we are more stressed since the recession hit two years ago. At first sight, perhaps, a statement of the blindingly obvious. But teasing out the results shows worrying trends in behaviour that could exact a heavy toll on our health.

Doctors and psychologists talk about a series of approaches for dealing with stress. The action orientated approach involves confronting the problem causing you stress and trying to change it. When overwork is the stress and your options are putting up or losing your job, substituting lack of money for lack of time, this approach may not be an option.

The alternative is the acceptance orientated approach, in which you accept that you can't remove the source of stress but change the way you feel about it by interpreting it in a different way. Easier said than done, of course, when an overbearing manager is screaming about another deadline every five minutes.

But can you see her behaviour for what it is? Maybe she's a single parent, terrified about how she will pay the mortgage and childcare costs if she loses her job? Perhaps you could start pitying her rather than wanting to throw your computer at her? In one small aspect of my ludicrously busy life, I've turned my attitude around completely. As an inner city GP, getting stuck in traffic jams is a way of life and used to be a huge source of stress. I now keep my two favourite CDs in the car and only allow myself to listen to them when I've been stuck in traffic for at least 10 minutes.

But 20 years as a GP has taught me that not every stress has such a pragmatic solution. We can't always banish the stress; we can't change how we view it; but we can keep ourselves in the best mental and physical shape to deal with it. Here the survey reveals also some worrying truths. All too many of us are using short term solutions which threaten our ability to cope long term.

Social support is a vital tool in warding off depression when we are stressed, yet 34% are seeing fewer friends because they cannot afford to go out. 1/3 of respondents in the survey have put on weight, often because of comfort eating due to stress (27%) or because they are eating more unhealthy foods in the belief that they are cheaper (21%).

A balanced diet low in saturated fat and high in unrefined carbohydrates does more than reduce the long term risk of obesity, with all the attendant complications of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It can also reduce bloating and constipation and increase alertness. High fat, refined foods are easily absorbed, raising blood sugar rapidly but also dropping it rapidly, with lower concentration and perhaps a knock-on effect on job performance, therefore not helping to reduce stress levels.

And healthy food doesn't need to be more expensive, although it may take a little more planning. Instead of sitting at home alone eating junk food, what about inviting friends round to experiment with cheap-but-healthy home cooking? Better still, instead of slumping exhausted on the sofa when you get home from another long day at work, recruit some friends to go walking or cycling a couple of times a week. Exercise increases production of endorphins, the body's own 'feel-good' hormones, and is used regularly in medical practice to combat depression.

By taking little steps such as these, reacting to increased stress levels differently can suddenly have positive health benefits instead of negative ones.