Mental Health Awareness Week – Coping with Stress

Many of us have experienced feeling stressed – the common sensations of butterflies in the stomach or being unable to ‘switch off’ – and for someone with diabetes, knowing how to cope with stress is important because stress can affect how they manage their condition. It can also be caused by various factors relating to diabetes such as receiving a diagnosis or adjusting to treatment.

What is stress?

Stress is a physiological response to threat or danger. We generally experience stress when we feel unable to cope with certain demands or pressures.

When we experience an event we perceive as stressful, our body releases a hormone called cortisol which triggers our fight or flight response. When this happens, our heart rate increases, our breathing quickens and blood is diverted away from the digestive system to the larger muscle groups. Glucose is also released into the blood for energy (hence the high blood sugars!).

A small amount of stress can be good for us, it can help us feel alert and motivated when we need to meet a deadline. But prolonged stress can lead to issues such as digestive problems, headaches and trouble sleeping.

How can stress affect someone with diabetes?

As we mentioned previously, the stress hormone cortisol can lead to elevated levels of glucose in the blood – so if you’re stressed out you might have a hard time trying to get your blood sugar levels under control.

This then might leave you feeling annoyed or frustrated – so it’s easy to see how this can become a vicious cycle. It may also contribute to experiencing something known as diabetes burnout.

Diabetes burnout occurs when someone stops following their diabetes care plan and fails to monitor their blood sugar levels regularly. Knowing how to manage stress may help to prevent experiencing burnout.

What can I do to manage stress?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Quit the caffeine – many of us drink tea or coffee to keep us alert, but caffeine can often stimulate the nervous system to produce more cortisol, intensifying the symptoms of stress. Stick to drinking decaffeinated drinks after midday.
  • Get enough sleep – sleep is important for cortisol regulation so that might explain why you might feel more stressed after a night of poor sleep. If you’re finding it hard to ‘switch off’ before you go to bed it might help to create a list of what you need to do the next day. Sometimes writing our thoughts down on paper can help us to feel less overwhelmed.
  • Keep a good diet – having high blood sugar levels can often make us feel hungry and crave sugary, high carbohydrate snacks. Switching to a low carbohydrate diet can help to regulate blood sugar levels.
  • Practice mindfulness or a breathing exercise – relaxation techniques such as mindfulness can help you to shift your focus on the present moment and away from racing thoughts. Practicing a breathing exercise when you’re feeling stressed may also help to lower heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Schedule in some ‘me time’ – I’m sure many of us are guilty of putting the needs of others before our own – make sure you spend some time each day doing something that you enjoy doing.
  • Ask for support – we shouldn’t feel afraid about asking for support, sometimes talking to someone can help you to feel less overwhelmed. If you’re feel stressed at work have a talk with your manager about your workload or reach out to a friend or family member and let them know how you’re feeling. You can also seek support from the community through our Diabetes Forum.

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About the author

Meg Knight

Meg is a Behaviour Change Mentor for diabetes.co.uk. She is passionate about supporting individuals to improve their mental health and wellbeing through making lifestyle changes. Meg graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Psychology and is currently studying for an MSc in Clinical & Health Psychology. In her spare time she enjoys live music events and experimenting with low carb cooking.

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