Diabetes is a complex disease, with varying risk factors and causes. Stress, especially long-term stress, interferes with the body’s ability to manage blood sugar levels.
As managing sugar levels becomes more difficult, the risk of long-term problems increases.
In this article, we will examine what stress is, how it is caused, and how it affects people living with diabetes. Since stress is a natural part of life, we will also discuss tips for managing and preventing stress.
Many people experience a feeling of being overwhelmed from time to time. This feeling may include a headache, flushing or sweating, and a clenched jaw. These physical reactions could be the result of stress.
Stress is a state of mental, emotional, or physical strain or tension. Stress is normal and sometimes positive.
However, long-lasting stress is damaging. It can be caused by adverse or very demanding life events that are longer term. The body reacts as if it were under constant attack. In many ways it is, and the natural response is to fight or take flight.
When this occurs, hormone levels shoot up, causing stored energy to assist cells in reacting to the “dangerous” situation. In those with diabetes, this reaction isn’t so beneficial.
People with diabetes have a different reaction once the fight-or-flight response occurs because insulin, a hormone that helps the body use energy, isn’t as readily available. The response causes sugar to pile up in the blood instead of being taken up by the cells and used for energy.
Why do insulin and blood sugar levels matter?
Sugar is a fuel for the body. If the body doesn’t effectively use sugar because insulin can’t get it into cells, blood sugar levels become higher than normal.
Raised blood sugar levels are known as hyperglycemia. If maintained over time, hyperglycemia can cause damage to the tiny blood vessels in the eyes, kidneys, heart, and nervous system.
People with type 1 or type 2 diabetes measure their blood sugar levels using a glucometer and a tiny blood sample. The meter helps a person with diabetes find out if their blood sugar levels are low or high. Management strategies, such as diet, exercise, and medication, are adjusted based on results.
Long- and short-term stress affect the body differently. Short-term stress is easiest to deal with. An example of short-term stress could be a difficult conversation. Once a solution is reached, the body quickly returns to its normal state.
Long-term stress is less easy to resolve and affects overall health more severely. Long-term stress can be caused by ongoing events such as an illness, financial struggle, or being overworked.
Like physical stress, things that cause emotional stress can cause a fight-or-flight response in the body. Unlike physical stress, emotional stress does not often result in the actual “fight or flight,” a reaction that allows for the body to respond to the stress and then go back to a more relaxed state.
In people with diabetes, stress can also alter blood sugar levels. Stress could cause people with diabetes to slip in taking good care of themselves.
The following responses to stress can lead to uncontrolled blood sugar levels:
- Drinking more alcohol
- Exercising less
- Not paying attention to eating habits
- Forgetting to check blood sugar
Overall, stress makes it harder for the body to control blood sugar levels. This often increases frustration and can lead to potential disastrous side effects for diabetes.
A very valuable way to recognize when blood sugar levels may change due to stress is by recognizing the signs and symptoms. Stress can worsen conditions linked to diabetes such as depression, anxiety, heart attacks, and high blood pressure.
Here are a few more common signs of stress:
- Jaw clenching or teeth grinding
- Shaking and trembling
- Sweating, can be accompanied by a flush
- Panic attacks
- Reduced sexual desire
- Increased anger
- Changes in appetite
- Reduced productivity
- Changes in behavior
- Sleeplessness or insomnia
- Crying or mood swings
Can stressful effects be tracked?
People with diabetes can track changes to blood sugar levels caused by stress to increase their awareness of blood sugar shifts. They can do this by recording sugar and stress levels in the following way:
- Writing down a number rating their mental stress level on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the highest)
- Checking their blood sugar level and recording it next to their stress rating
- Charting these levels for 1-2 weeks will show how stress alters their personal blood sugar levels
Stress cannot always be escaped, but it can be handled so that life is more enjoyable.
One tip is to start by being more mindful by making a mental list of what causes stress. For example, if a commute is stressful, it may be time to change the time of traveling or mode of transport.
Long-lasting stress is often a signal that something needs to change, and altering simple things can go a long way. For larger issues, like a failing marriage, coping can come in two different ways:
- Admitting that there is a problem and starting to apply changes as needed, even if it takes a long time and is a long-term project
- Accepting that the problem isn’t going away and learn how to deal with it as best can be
These coping styles can be applied to anything that causes stress.
People with diabetes need to pay special attention to increased levels of stress. These techniques alone may not be helpful enough, and medical attention is always recommended when stress levels cannot be evened out.
These strategies can calm, relax, and soothe large and small amounts of daily stress, however.
Sit or lie down, close both eyes, and take a deep breath. Release. Do this as many times as it takes to release tension in the mind and muscles. This method can be practiced daily, helping to relax at any time.
Follow a meditation podcast or just sit alone and be mindful of the day. This can be done alone or in a group for guided meditation. This technique sets a soft tone for the morning or evening.
There are countless benefits to exercise. Stress is released through movement. Simply stretching, taking a walk, or doing a few push-ups can help relieve stress. Many people recommend yoga for a combined strengthening and meditative experience.
Put a favorite song on and enjoy a few moments of sound. Music shows benefits such as elevating mood, decreasing stress, and controlling breath. Individuals should listen to sounds that relax them, like waves, a thunderstorm, or singing birds.
Try thinking about positive things when negative thoughts enter the mind. Memorizing a favorite poem, quote, or prayer could help.
Stress is a part of life, and no one at any age or level of health can escape it. Having diabetes makes it especially hard because it adds an extra layer to the stress.
As a result, it is important for people with diabetes to seek out their best coping style and practice it daily. People with diabetes should talk to their doctor if they want more information on blood sugar levels and stress.