Stress doesn't cause diabetes but it can affect your blood sugar levels and how you look after your condition.
Having diabetes to manage on top of life’s normal ups and downs can itself be a cause of stress. It’s not always easy to live with and this can also feel harder when many people don’t understand it.
You can’t avoid stressful situations but there are things you can do to make it easier to cope. This will help stop stress building up and affecting your emotional health.
What is stress?
Stress is how your body and mind reacts to new or difficult situations. It might be something short-term like worrying about a presentation you’re giving at work the next day. Or going to a party where you don’t know many people at the weekend. It can also be something physical like an accident or illness.
Or you may have less immediate but more constant worries about things like money, a relationship or coping with the loss of someone close.
Stress can affect you physically, emotionally and mentally.
If you’re feeling stressed, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This should give you an energy boost for a ‘fight or flight’ response. But the hormones actually make it harder for insulin to work properly, known as insulin resistance. As energy can’t get into your cells, your blood sugar levels rise.
If your blood sugar levels go too high, it’s called going hyper (full name hyperglycaemia). We’ve got more information about hypers, how to avoid them and how they’re treated.
If stress doesn’t go away, it can keep your blood sugar levels high and put you at higher risk of diabetes complications. It can also affect your mood and how you look after yourself, which can start to affect your emotional health.
But there are things you can do to take the pressure off.
Diabetes is often a cause of stress, particularly in the early days when you’ve just been diagnosed. Having to pay close to attention to what you eat and having lots of new things to learn and remember can feel tough. It may mean you now have to check your blood sugar levels a lot or inject yourself every day. Worrying about what the results will say or feeling anxious about needles can be really stressful.
Some people with diabetes worry about having hypos too – when your blood sugar level goes too low. It can be stressful wondering when they might happen and managing them when they do. You might hear this called hypo anxiety and there are things you can do to manage these feelings.
From time to time some people may start to feel overwhelmed by their diabetes, feeling frustrated and distressed about having it. Some people worry about getting complications and some feel guilty if the way they manage their diabetes goes off track. This feeling of being overwhelmed can also get worse when you’re feeling a lot of stress, when looking after your diabetes as well as everything else becomes too much.
It’s understandable if you feel this way from time to time – it’s known as diabetes distress and you’re not alone. If you don’t manage this distress, things can get worse and could lead to burnout. So talk to your healthcare team about it and get some advice.
Can stress cause diabetes?
Stress alone doesn’t cause diabetes. But there is some evidence that there may be a link between stress and the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Our researchers think that high levels of stress hormones might stop insulin-producing cells in the pancreas from working properly and reduce the amount of insulin they make. In turn, this might contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.
We're also looking into whether people who release too much cortisol have a higher risk of type 2.
Overeating when you're stressed could also be a factor in how people develop type 2 diabetes. Some people react to stress by eating more and this can lead to them putting on a lot of weight. We've got more information on managing feelings when it comes to food.
Everyone copes with stressful situations in different ways. If you want to change the way you react so things feel easier, try the Stress Manager tool on our Learning Zone. Answer questions on how you deal with the demands of managing your condition to get a plan of action to help you simplify stressful situations.
At times of stress, it’s even more important to remember to look after yourself and treat yourself kindly.
But we know it’s not always as easy as that. If you’re extra busy at work or looking after family then forgetting to eat or take medication can happen.
It’s important to get a balance between looking after yourself without putting too much pressure on yourself to do everything perfectly. This can add or lead to stress. But it’s good to be aware of how easy it can be to give into the habit of letting diabetes self-care slip in times of stress.
Getting enough sleep and building exercise, rest and relaxation time into your routine helps some people cope better with stress.
"When things get hard, I usually go into self-care over drive. If too many hypos are throwing me off, I'll hole up on the sofa with blankets and some trashy TV to make me feel better."
Laura, who has type 1 diabetes - read Laura's story
And you don’t need us to tell you that turning to comfort food will raise your blood sugar and make you feel worse. Similarly, drinking more alcohol will affect your blood sugar levels.
Learning how to see your diabetes differently may help. For example, by going on a diabetes education course and meeting others like you.
Talking about what’s making you stressed can help. It may put something into perspective, or you may just feel relieved about getting it off your chest.
If you want to talk to someone about things that are worrying you, you could think about speaking to your healthcare team.
"I started to feel I wasn’t so stupid – that it wasn’t all my fault. That you can have the same breakfast and one day have a hypo, and the next day not. I stopped blaming myself automatically as I’d done before."
Zena, who was able to talk to a psychologist
If you find that stress is affecting how you manage your diabetes, your diabetes team may be able to give you advice about what could help. For example, they can help you work out when you might need to adjust your insulin.
But don’t forget you can also chat to one of our advisors, they have counselling skills, for free by contacting our helpline. You’ll also get a warm welcome and support from others with diabetes on our online support forum who will know what you’re going through. They’ll be able to offer tips and share their own experiences.
It doesn’t matter that what you get stressed about may not be related to diabetes. It’s getting support to manage it that’s important. Getting support may start to help you think about how you react to stress and think about things – and what you can change to make things easier.
We’ve got more information about starting that conversation – with tips around how to talk about diabetes and how it makes you feel – whether that’s with your healthcare professional team, your family or your boss at work.