Does Stress Make Diabetes Worse?

Discover how stress can make diabetes worse by impacting blood sugar levels, and what you can do to keep both in check.  

Shot of a woman writing in her diary while sitting in living room with a cup of coffee
Shot of an attractive woman writing in her diary while sitting in living room with a cup of coffee

If you have diabetes, your mental health may be low on your list of priorities. You may be more worried about physical issues that can come with diabetes, such as heart disease or foot conditions. But did you know that diabetes is also linked to an emotion many of us feel every day? Spoiler alert: It’s stress.    

“It’s a two-way street. Stress can impact your ability to manage your diabetes. And poor diabetes management can cause stress,” says Gary Scheiner, MS, a certified diabetes educator. Scheiner is Clinical Director of Integrated Diabetes Services in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. “It creates a cycle where it feeds on itself. Which is why you want to learn to handle stress as much as possible.”  

When you’re stressed, your body pumps out a hormone called adrenaline. “It activates the ‘fight or flight’ response. It’s what we once relied on during times of extreme danger, like being attacked by a bear,” says Scheiner. When this hormone is released, your body dumps sugar into your bloodstream. It gives you a burst of energy. That’s good news if you are trying to outrun a bear. But it’s bad news if you have diabetes.   

There are other ways stress impacts your diabetes, too. “If you’re under stress, you may have poor sleep quality and high blood pressure. Both can contribute to high glucose levels,” says Scheiner. As a result, your diabetes may become harder to manage. One study found that people under stress needed more medication. They also had poorer control of their diabetes. 

Losing control of your health can leave anyone feeling worried or frustrated. And that can lead to unhealthy habits. Some people stop checking their blood sugar. They might even skip doctor visits. Experts have a name for this: “diabetes distress.” It happens in up to 50% of people with diabetes. 

Of course, no one can stay 100% stress free. But you can figure out ways to respond to it in more positive and productive ways, says Scheiner. Here are some ways to help break the stress-diabetes cycle. 

Take some deep breaths.   

Deep breathing helps lower your heart rate. It also calms your nervous system, says Scheiner. Try the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Here’s how to do it.  

  1. Inhale while counting slowly to four.   
  1. Hold your breath for a count of seven.   
  1. Exhale for a count of eight.   
  1. Aim for 4 cycles. As you get more used to it, you can work your way up to 8 cycles.  

Do this whenever you’re feeling stressed. You can also do it twice a day to help prevent stress. Try first thing in the morning and before bed at night.   

Exercise   

“It can help to relieve pent up energy,” says Scheiner. Even just a quick walk can make a difference. It’s enough to boost levels of your brain’s feel-good hormones. A good time to walk? After a meal. Walking as little as 2 to 5 minutes after a meal was shown to help lower blood sugar.  

Write in a journal   

Writing is an important way to get out emotions, says Scheiner. Use it as a chance to focus on the positive. Try writing down the things you are grateful for, like children or grandchildren. In one study, people with medical symptoms who also had anxiety reported less stress if they kept a web-based journal. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In the study, people wrote for just 15 minutes a day, 3 days a week. 

Meditate  

Just 5 minutes of meditation a day can have stress busting benefits.5 You can do it at any time of day that works for you. But if you’re just getting started, try it first thing. Morning meditators may be more likely to stick with it. 

Get enough sleep.   

Being well rested can help improve your blood glucose levels, says Scheiner. It can also serve as a buffer against stress. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. Have trouble drifting off? Be sure to shut off electronics at least an hour before bed. They emit blue light that can make it harder to fall asleep. Blue light can also impact your blood sugar levels. It’s also helpful to stick to a consistent bedtime routine, says Scheiner. Some ideas: Read for a short while, or do a crossword puzzle.  

Talk to your doctor.   

If you feel stressed, let your medical provider know. They can help to problem solve any concerns you may have about your diabetes. They can also refer you to counseling and other resources to help you get a handle on stress. 


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