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Managing Stress with Type 1 Diabetes

April 26, 2022
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Life is full of stress, whether it’s the excitement of an upcoming event or the stress over a deadline at work or school. Understanding the effects of stress on the body for people with diabetes can make navigating the added issues that stress causes a little easier. We’ll explain some key insights about stress as it relates to diabetes, and some tips on how to cope with life’s many stressors.

Stress and the Human Body

When your mind or body feels stress, a hormonal response gets triggered and it signals to the liver that the body needs energy.1 It does this because of what is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. When this occurs, the liver sends some if its stored glucose (glycogen) into the bloodstream so that you have enough energy to fight or flee the stressor. This response helped us as a species when we were living among wild animals and in a much more survivalist condition.

In the 21st century, many of our stressors are less physical and more mental. This does not mean that our brain or body can tell the difference, and it still has the same reaction physiologically. And when you add diabetes into the mix, the body does not have the normal response of increasing insulin as the glucose in the blood rises from the stress response, so it typically causes a rise in blood glucose levels.1

Type 1 Diabetes and Stress

Unfortunately for those of us who have T1D, not only is stress more complicated for us to deal with, but diabetes causes us more stress! Here is a brief summary of what the latest research says about T1D and stress:

  • People with diabetes have a higher risk for increased levels of stress due to the many demands of diabetes self-management.2
  • Stress is a potential trigger for the development of T1D – including familial stress and viral illnesses as possiblities.2
  • People with diabetes who have high levels of diabetes-related stress are at an increased risk for worse glycemic control and higher HbA1c levels.3
  • Managing diabetes-related stress effectively improves HbA1c and glycemic management.3
  • More research on stress in general and chronic stress related to diabetes is needed to better understand the relationship between stress and diabetes.3

Some of the challenges in figuring out the relationship between stress in diabetes are the reciprocal relationship between stress and diabetes, the broad effects of stress on people, and the many different types of stress.3 Not to mention how individual the experience of stress can be in people, and the individual differences people have with type 1 diabetes on top of that.

Stress Management

There are many ways to manage stress, and as with many things, the first step is trying to recognize when you are feeling stressed. There are many symptoms that can arise, and you may not even realize they could be caused from stress.

Some common symptoms according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness include:

  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Jaw pain
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Mood swings
  • Trouble concentrating

Finding stress management techniques that work best for you can take time, practice, and may not always work depending on the circumstances. Some common methods that NAMI suggests are:

  • Practice Relaxation such as meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation
  • Exercise Regularly – and make it something fun that you enjoy
  • Accept your needs – we are all human, and figuring out what you need to feel mentally well can be a huge help in managing stress levels
  • Eat healthy, fresh meals whenever possible
  • Sleep the full recommended eight hours of sleep a night
  • Schedule some “Me Time” and do something that is relaxing and you enjoy such as reading, walking your dog, reading a book, or taking a bath

Mindfulness is another technique that can be incredibly helpful in reducing levels of stress and has been shown to improve diabetes management in a number of ways.4 There are many resources available to learn how to practice mindfulness, including a number of websites and apps, and you should easily be able to find them with a simple internet search. Personally, I have used both Calm and Headspace and found them both very helpful in cultivating mindfulness. They have mindfulness meditation courses, tips on how to incorporate mindfulness into your everyday life, and a lot of other great features.

It does not really matter how you manage your stress, as long as you are choosing something that is beneficial to your mind and body. Adding substances such as alcohol or drugs in the mix typically only adds to the challenge of maintaining mental wellness. And sometimes you simply need additional help in navigating whatever challenges you’re experiencing.

The American Diabetes Association has an online registry for psychologists who understand diabetes and psychology, and there are many mental health resources online and in your community. Your diabetes or primary care health team can help you find a counselor, psychiatrist, or whatever other help you may need.

Here are some additional free resources provided by CWD, that are focused on mental wellbeing related to diabetes, from experts in the field:

  1. Diabetes and Mental Wellness Screenside Chat with Diabetes Psychologist Dr. Jessie Wong
  2. Talking About Kids’ Mental Health Screenside Chat with Diabetes Psychologist Dr. Laura Smith
  3. Dealing with Diabetes Burnout Screenside Chat with Diabetes Psychologist Dr. Jessica Kichler

Hopefully, life is getting a little less stressful for you than it has been in the last few years, though many of us are likely struggling from a mental health condition as a result of COVID-19. Living through the lockdown, quarantines, and fear of the unknown has affected all of us. It has also shifted many peoples’ perspectives and shown how important mental wellness is for all of us, diabetes or not.

Happy relaxing, friends, and here’s to hoping for some precedented times already.

References:

  1. Stress and Diabetes
  2. Stress and Diabetes Mellitus: Pathogenetic Mechanisms and Clinical Outcome
  3. Stress and A1c Among People with Diabetes Across the Lifespan
  4. Diabetes and Mindfulness

Written and clinically reviewed by Marissa Town, RN, BSN, CDCES