I spend a lot of time talking to people about stress. Finding healthy ways to minimise the negative impact of stress is very important. Today I’d like to focus on unhealthy stress relievers. They play an important role in our response to stress but have the potential to cause significant harm.

In this blog, I will start exploring some of the unhealthy stress relievers that people adopt to help them deal with stress.


Smoking is commonly used as a stress reliever. In my work as a GP, I have come across many patients who admit they can’t give up smoking because life is ‘stressful’. Others tell me that, having previously given up,  they restarted smoking because of stress. There are some perceived positive reasons for smoking, such as the calming effect of nicotine and social connectivity. However, the harms are many and serious. Smoking causes severe lung disease, increases the risks of heart attacks and strokes as well contributing to a number of cancers. Smoking is addictive and costs money.

For some people, giving up smoking seems to be easy, whilst for others it is incredibly difficult. It can be helpful to look at the bigger picture and make a plan. Consider why you are smoking and what you could do instead. Consider associations you have created and try alternatives that don’t have that trigger effect. For example, if you’re used to a coffee and a cigarette, consider changing your beverage to one that isn’t associated with smoking. Involve your friends and family in your decision to give up. Work out what you can save by giving up and decide how you’d like to spend the money. Nicotine replacement can help, as can vaping. Hypnotherapy is helpful for some people.


Caffeine is also commonly used as a stress reliever. I often discuss caffeine intake with patients and clients. It is amazing how many mugs of tea and coffee people can drink a day without even thinking about it. Sometimes as many as 20! Caffeine is a stimulant. It makes the heart beat faster and can contribute to palpitations (fast heart beat) and panic attacks. Too much caffeine can raise blood pressure and cause headaches. It is also a diuretic which means the bladder fills up more quickly. As a result, people can struggle with urinary frequency and urgency. They may also find themselves getting up through the night to go to the loo.  

If this is you, maybe think about why you are drinking so much caffeine. Is it because you are not sleeping well and you are using caffeine to keep you awake through the day? If so, what can you do to improve your sleep? (I will be writing a blog in the coming weeks on sleep hygiene, designed to help with poor sleep). Is caffeine a habit? Is it something you associate with breaks from work? Having some caffeine is fine but try to include decaffeinated beverages through the days as well. Caffeine takes a long time to leave the body.  If you struggle with getting up through the night for the loo, I suggest omitting caffeine after 6pm. If you’re an early to bed person, after 4pm would be advisable.

Sugary/Fatty foods

Sugary and/or fatty foods taste great and are often eaten in times of stress. Society puts temptation all around us and I know I struggle to resist the temptation to buy milk chocolate.  However, if these foods are not moderated they can increase the risk of a number of health issues. Examples include diabetes, painful joints resulting from weight gain, heart disease, strokes and circulatory problems. Another condition that is less well known, is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This condition results from fat being deposited in the liver and the damage caused is similar to that caused by alcohol and can be severe.

Our relationship with food can be very complicated and resisting the temptation to comfort eat is not easy. But it is important to try as what we put into our bodies can have a significant impact on our mental and physical health. Here are a few tips. Try to eat regular meals which include Low Glycaemic Index foods (which release their energy slowly). Don’t go shopping when you are hungry. Dark chocolate has health benefits and less sugar so is easier to resist. Consider other ways of treating yourself, when life is hard, which don’t cause you harm.


People use alcohol as a stress reliever in a variety of ways. Some use it when feeling anxious, to calm their nerves. For others, it can help them relax after a stressful day. It is often drunk as a treat when times are tough. Some people use it because it helps them to get to sleep.  The trouble is that alcohol is highly addictive in some people. I have met patients who started using alcohol for one of the above reasons and, ultimately, it destroyed their lives through addiction. Alcohol is also highly calorific and can contribute to weight gain and all its associated problem. Alcohol can damage the liver, sometimes irreversibly.

Many people assume that addiction won’t happen to them but it can creep up on people without them realising. I encourage you to think about why you are drinking, how much and when. The NHS advises no more than 14 units a week, spread out. I recommend not letting alcohol become a crutch.  Let it be a treat.

In summary, when we are feeling stressed, it is easy to reach for unhealthy stress relievers which often help us feel better quickly. However, if we don’t moderate them, they can cause significant harm to our health and to our lives. Try to focus on nurturing your mental, physical and emotional health. When it comes to all these unhealthy stress relievers, I recommend the following: let them be a treat, not a treatment for underlying issues that need attention.

Reflecting on our unhealthy stress relievers can help us identify stress in ourselves. Do get in touch if you think I might be able to help you find a healthier way to manage stress in your life.