Understanding the relationship between stress, distress and healthy lifestyle behaviour: a qualitative study of patients and general practitioners

Author: Suzanne H McKenzie 12* and Mark F Harris 2
* Corresponding author: Suzanne H McKenzie suzanne.mckenzie1@jcu.edu.au Author Affiliations 1 School of Medicine and Dentistry, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia 2 Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Conference/Journal: BMC Family Practice
Date published: 2013
Other: Volume ID: 14 , Pages: 166 , Special Notes: doi:10.1186/1471-2296-14-166 , Word Count: 285

The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2296/14/166

The process of initiating and maintaining healthy lifestyle behaviours is complex, includes a number of distinct phases and is not static. Theoretical models of behaviour change consider psychological constructs such as intention and self efficacy but do not clearly consider the role of stress or psychological distress. General practice based interventions addressing lifestyle behaviours have been demonstrated to be feasible and effective however it is not clear whether general practitioners (GPs) take psychological health into consideration when discussing lifestyle behaviours. This qualitative study explores GPs’ and patients’ perspectives about the relationship between external stressors, psychological distress and maintaining healthy lifestyle behaviours.

Semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted with 16 patients and 5 GPs. Transcripts from the interviews were thematically analysed and a conceptual model developed to explain the relationship between external stressors, psychological distress and healthly lifestyle behaviours.

Participants were motivated to maintain a healthy lifestyle however they described a range of external factors that impacted on behaviour in both positive and negative ways, either directly or via their impact on psychological distress. The impact of external factors was moderated by coping strategies, beliefs, habits and social support. In some cases the process of changing or maintaining healthy behaviour also caused distress. The concept of a threshold level of distress was evident in the data with patients and GPs describing a certain level of distress required before it negatively influenced behaviour.

Maintaining healthy lifestyle behaviours is complex and constantly under challenge from external stressors. Practitioners can assist patients with maintaining healthy behaviour by providing targeted support to moderate the impact of external stressors.