Stress and Diabetes: How Your Emotions Affect Your Blood Sugar

Have you ever heard of “flight or fight syndrome”?  It explains a lot about stress and diabetes.  Flight or fight syndrome was first described by an American physiologist by the name of Walter Cannon in the 1920s.  Cannon figured out that when we’re stressed, our bodies prepare to fight with or flee from whatever is stressing us out.  We get a release of hormones into our bloodstream to help us do that.

The two main hormones associated with stress and diabetes are:

  • Adrenaline

  • Cortisol

You may have heard of adrenaline and cortisol before.  Adrenaline is like a chemical signal that tells your body to speed things up — that includes your heart rate and your blood pressure.

Cortisol tells your body that you need lots of energy to fight with or flee from this big scary thing that’s coming at you.  One of the main things that cortisol does is signal the body to dump sugar into the bloodstream.

An example of fight or flight syndrome

Imagine that you’re living on a farm in the 1800s.  You’re peacefully planting your fields when you come this close to stepping on a nest of rattlesnakes.  (Sorry, snake lovers…bear with me!)  Lucky for you, your flight or fight syndrome kicks in, and in the blink of an eye, you pull back your foot, pivot, and run in the other direction before you’re bitten by a rattlesnake.

In this case, fight or flight syndrome worked perfectly.  Your body got the energy it needed to quickly flee from something dangerous.

Fight or flight syndrome today

I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend any time planting fields.  There is the occasional bear spotted in my neighborhood, but despite my daily 3-mile walk, I’ve never actually seen one myself.  Thankfully, I can’t remember the last time that I needed to physically run from or fight with something.

The things that stress us out today are less physical and more mental.   We’re stressed out by deadlines, bills, traffic, and lots of other things that we don’t actually need to fight with or flee from.

But…our bodies don’t know that.  When we get a big ugly credit card bill in the mail and it feels stressful, we still get a release of adrenaline and cortisol in our bloodstream.  Those hormones still raise our blood pressure and our heart rate as well as our blood sugar, even if we’re just standing by the mailbox or sitting on the couch.

Mental stress and diabetes, and how to manage it

Now that you know how stress affects your blood sugar, you need a plan to manage it.  You need a way to lower your overall level of stress as well as a way to cope with stress at the moment when it pops up in your everyday life.

Immediate ways to lower stress anywhere:

  • Use a “breath” prayer or meditation.  When you breathe in, imagine something good coming into your body, such as “peace”.  Take in a full breath through your nose while you say the word “peace” inside your head. Hold onto that thought and that breath for several beats, and then breath out through your nose, emptying your breath and mentally imagining something negative leaving your body, such as “tension”.  Repeat that process ten times or more, until you feel relaxed.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation.  Mentally scan your body from top to bottom, tensing up every muscle you can find, and then consciously relaxing it.  This works best lying down, but you can also do this in a chair if you need to.

  • “Square” breathing.  Breathe in for the count of four, then hold your breath for the count of four, then breathe out to the count of four, then hold your breath again to the count of four.  Repeat as many times as needed.

Longer-term ways to lower stress:

  • Sleep.  If you’re not getting enough good quality sleep, your stress levels will go up.  Sleep is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.

  • Physical activity:  get at least 30 minutes a day, and preferably more.  You don’t have to run a marathon, but you might be surprised what a regular walk outdoors will do to elevate your mood.

  • Yoga, tai chi, and meditation are excellent ways to reduce stress.

  • Develop a hobby that absorbs your focus.  It really doesn’t matter what the hobby is, just that it requires your concentration so you can’t think about your problems while you think about the hobby.

  • Seek professional mental health counseling.  Many people with diabetes suffer from depression due to the strain of living with a chronic illness.

The bottom line about stress and diabetes

Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a big ugly rattlesnake and a big ugly credit card bill.  Your body will release the same stress hormones in any situation that upsets you.  That’s great for rattlesnakes, but not so great for the rest of what ails you, as my grandparents would have said.  So, it’s up to you to make a plan to manage your stress in order to keep your blood sugar levels where you want them.

Action Steps:

  1. Assess your own stress level.  How well do you manage stress?

  2. Choose one short-term and one long-term method of coping with stress and practice them today.

Julie Cunningham is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist. She believes food is the foundation of good health, and that our culture of obsession about body size is damaging to health, happiness, and productivity in far too many people. When not talking or writing about food and health, she can be found in the the mountains of western NC, where she lives with her family and four legged friends.

Julie Cunningham

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