Stress Can Aggravate Diabetes
Find out how stress affects your blood-sugar levels and learn how to better manage it.

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Picture of of woman suffering from stress Stress Can Aggravate Diabetes

We all have days when we feel we just can't take much more. Stresses in our daily lives can come from a variety of sources — family, work, finances, relationships. And if you have diabetes, you have important health concerns to think about on top of everything else.

Stress can pose particular problems for people with diabetes because of its effect on blood sugar.

Stress and blood sugar
When you are in a state of stress, your body acts as if it's under attack. This is known as the flight-or-fight response. This response raises the levels of many hormones. Your body pumps stored energy in the form of blood sugar and fat into your bloodstream to help you get away from the perceived threat.

Mental and physical stress can keep hormones on a state of high alert over long periods. That causes blood-sugar levels to build up over time. This is especially dangerous for people whose bodies have a hard time using insulin (type 2 diabetes) or whose bodies cannot produce it (type 1 diabetes). Insulin allows the blood sugar to be absorbed and put to use.

Mental stress can also complicate diabetes by distracting you from taking care of yourself properly. Your worries may cause you to skip a meal or eat the wrong foods because you're tense and nervous. You might forget to check your blood sugar or find excuses not to exercise.

Take charge of your stress
There are lots of things you can do to cope with your stress:

  • Get active! If you're taking care of your diabetes, you may already be physically active. Our nation's health experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. For many people, that translates into 30 minutes, five days a week. Regular exercise helps regulate your blood sugar and helps control your weight. It also lowers your risk for heart disease and nerve damage.
  • Go at your own pace. Be sure to discuss any new activity with your doctor. He or she may check your heart and your feet to be sure you have no special problems. Having high blood pressure, eye or foot problems could change the type of activity that is safe for you.
  • Try relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, meditation and yoga are some popular ways to get your mind off a stressful situation. If you can't use one of these methods, walk away from what's causing you stress. Go into another room and take a short break.
  • Try a new hobby or activity. You might take a class with someone who has a shared interest.
  • Take care of yourself. Do you get enough sleep? Are you eating a nutritious diet? Are you surrounding yourself with positive people? These can all help your physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Be careful about using alcohol. On the surface, it may seem like having a drink is a good way to relieve stress. But alcohol can cause health concerns in people with diabetes. It adds calories with no nutrition. It may cause reactions with medicines you take. Your blood glucose can drop too low if you drink on an empty stomach. Your doctor can discuss what, if any, level of drinking might be safe for you.

Make changes to manage stress
Don't let yourself feel hopeless about the stresses in your life. Perhaps you can find new ways to manage or change situations that cause you stress.

You may find it helpful to use a worksheet to identify your stresses and what you might do to relieve them.

Here are some examples. Spend a few minutes thinking about your biggest stresses and what you might do to ease the burden.

My stress: I can't stand the traffic jams on my way home.
My relief: I'll check out a carpool or see if I can move my work shift away from rush hour. Maybe I'll plan a different route.

My stress: Taking care of my aging mother leaves me tired and irritable with other things in my life
My relief: I'll find someone to help. I'll check with social agencies in my area to see if someone can sit with her for a few hours a week.

By Ginny Greene, Editor
Created on 03/30/2004
Updated on 10/08/2012
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Take charge of your diabetes.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes public health resource.
  • American Diabetes Association. Stress.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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