Most people think of “stress” as emotional – being “stressed out” by job pressures, or with constant worrying about a life circumstance. Psychologists have created lists of life’s most stressful events, and the lists always include “death of a spouse”, both “divorce” and “marriage”, “loss of a job”, “imprisonment” and “personal illness.” Diabetes, of course, falls into that “personal illness” category, and diabetes can be especially stressful as an illness because of the added responsibility of self-management. Finding ways to reduce the stress of diabetes (and diabetes self-management) is certainly important for your emotional health, but there’s an even more important reason – stress, especially “low level” chronic stress, is bad for your health.
You’ve already experienced how this works. Think of a time when you were extremely frightened or suddenly startled, and how your heart pounded, your hands trembled, and you felt an instantaneous rush of raw energy. This biological reaction to danger is triggered by a flood of hormones and “neurotransmitter” chemicals that speed your heart rate, raise your blood pressure, activate your immune system, and dump glucose (for instant energy) into your system. You may have heard the term “fight or flight” response – it’s a response that’s reserved for confronting danger.
What medical science has discovered, however, is that low level stress that never goes away – chronic stress – has the same effect on our system. And, while it’s a lower level response to a lower level of stress, the physical influences to blood pressure, blood glucose and our immune systems is similar. One small study found that long term stress (measured by levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”, in hair) was more closely associated with heart attacks than all other risk factors (cholesterol, high blood pressure, family history and smoking). Reducing stress is an important – a priority.
I can’t possibly know what’s stressing you personally (diabetes is probably one cause), but consider these tips as a great start to managing how stress can affect your health:
- Get adequate sleep – most adults need about 7 hours sleep each night.
- Devote some time to leisure activities – and don’t feel “selfish” about it. Spending some time doing your favorite leisure activity reduces stress, and reducing stress is preserving your long term health.
- Be Active – it’s not only important to diabetes management, but being physically active reduces stress.
- Get organized-organize your medications by placing them in one area so you easily can find them, plan your meals ahead of time, and block off time for physical activity.
Your stress from diabetes might never go away completely, but making a decision to prioritize your health above other demands on your time and attention by making time for sleep, leisure and exercise will carry over to other diabetes management behaviors too, like eating healthier.