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How Stress and Depression Affect Diabetes

A diabetes diagnosis, new or long-standing, can trigger reactions like grief, stress, depression and frustration, but symptom relief and help are available

healthcare provider writing in notes, with glucometer, blood droplet, medicine and approved foods floating near

When life feels like it’s moving at an extremely fast pace, stress is often an unwelcome companion along for the ride. And while certain amounts of stress come with the territory of being human, too much of it can have a negative impact on your body and health.

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If you’re someone who lives with diabetes, you may have wondered about the connection between different types of stress and diabetes. Understanding this connection is important for your health.

Diabetes educator Sue Cotey, RN, CDCES, explains how stress — as well as feelings of depression — are linked to diabetes and what you can do to manage both.

How is diabetes linked to emotions?

Stress is something we all deal with, notes Cotey. It’s that feeling when life gets a little overwhelming, like when we have a lot of schoolwork or when things at home get busy. In the same sense, our health can also be a cause for stress. Whether it’s a new diagnosis or a longstanding one, living with diabetes in particular can trigger a flood of emotions.

Some of these emotions can include:

These emotions are natural responses and are experienced by many people, especially when you’re first diagnosed with diabetes. You may also feel these emotions when managing diabetes over the long term.

Emotional issues may make it harder for you to take care of yourself — to eat right, exercise and rest — which, in turn, can affect your blood sugar. In addition, you might find yourself trying to reduce stress with unhealthy behaviors, which can contribute to diabetes complications.

When we’re stressed, our bodies can go into “fight-or-flight” mode, releasing hormones like adrenaline. These hormones can make our hearts race and our muscles tense up, preparing us to handle a tough situation. But they also tell our liver to release extra sugar into our blood, which can cause glucose levels to spike. If we’re constantly stressed, this can strain our bodies’ ability to manage glucose effectively over time.

Recognizing your stress and diabetes symptoms

Most people experience stress as an emotional or physical strain. It can result in worry, anxiety and tension. Everyday events or changes in life may create stress. Stress affects everyone to some degree, but it may be more difficult to manage when people learn they have diabetes.

Symptoms of stress can include:

  • Nervousness.
  • A fast heartbeat.
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Stomach upset.
  • Depression.

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Stress can make it more difficult to manage your diabetes, as it may throw off your daily routine and can result in wear and tear on your body. Hormones from stress increase your blood pressure, raise your heart rate and can cause blood sugar to rise. High blood sugar can make you feel down or tired. Low blood sugar may result in you feeling upset or nervous.

How can I reduce stress in my life?

When you’re feeling the weight of stress in the moment, it may feel like it’s an impossible boulder that you can’t move. Recognizing this feeling is an important first step. Then, Cotey suggests trying some of these approaches to reduce feelings of stress:

  • Use relaxation techniques. Practicing things like deep breathing, meditation, yoga and mindfulness throughout the day can help your body move into a calmer state.
  • Get some exercise. You can reduce stress through activities like dancing, walking or biking. Do something that you enjoy.
  • Share what you’re going through with friends and family. Talking about your concerns with trusted people can help relieve your stress and perhaps solve those problems.
  • Remember to keep your sense of humor. Laughing helps reduce stress.
  • Join a support group. You can meet people with issues similar to yours and make new friends.
  • Take your medications as directed and eat healthy meals.
  • Seek out professional help to talk about what’s troubling you and learn coping strategies.

If you try these approaches and you still don’t feel you’re able to manage your stress levels, Cotey recommends contacting a diabetes educator or healthcare provider about other options you can try.

What are the symptoms of depression?

Too much stress sometimes can lead to depression. People with diabetes are more likely to experience depression than the average person. You may be at risk for depression if you have any of the following symptoms for more than a week:

  • Feel sad or irritable.
  • Have lost interest in activities you enjoy.
  • Feel a sense of worthlessness.
  • Experience a change in sleeping patterns.
  • Feel fatigued or like you’ve lost energy.

Feelings of fatigue or feelings of worthlessness could make it harder to engage in the self-care you need to help manage your diabetes. And while these feelings can be stifling, they’re not impossible to work through. Depression can be treated with lifestyle activities (like increased exercise and relaxation), medication and counseling. Speak with your healthcare provider if you’re beginning to experience any of these symptoms of depression.

The bottom line

Your healthcare providers are here to help you find relief from constant stress, depression and other mental health problems that may be worsening your diabetes. Get in touch with your healthcare provider if any symptoms of stress or depression are starting to affect your day-to-day life. They can work with you to make a plan not just for managing your diabetes, but also for managing your stress and any symptoms of depression.

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