Diabetes Self-Management Blog

Stress is a major contributor to diabetes, but most people don’t understand what stress really is. Here’s how stress works, and some things you can do about it.

Most people think of stress as busyness. You’re running around with twelve errands to do. The phones are ringing and the children are screaming. We think all the little demands of life add up to this thing called “stress.”

But busy stress has a mild effect, like a roller coaster ride, one that many bodies actually enjoy. Real stress is different. It raises our blood pressure, increases insulin resistance, and disables our immune system. So where does this damaging stress come from?

Real stress is a response to a threat. For millions of years, stress has been key to our survival. Threats in the past tended to be physical, like a lion or a fire.

The stress response is made for running or fighting. Stress pours glucose into our blood to fuel the muscles and brain. It makes the cells not involved in running or fighting “insulin resistant,” so they will not soak up the glucose we need for fuel. It raises our blood pressure to pump the blood around faster.

That was fine back in the jungle. You sense a lion; you get stressed. Your glucose goes up, and you use the fuel to run away or climb a tree. The exercise uses up the extra glucose and restores your hormonal balance. In ten minutes, the threat is over, and you can rest.

But today’s threats are not usually physical. When you’re threatened with job loss or foreclosure or problems in your marriage or a child’s drug problem or the fear of diabetes complications, you can’t fight, and you can’t run. You just sit there and worry.

Unlike jungle stress, modern stresses often act on us 24/7. They never go away. Over time, insulin resistance builds up and causes illnesses including Type 2 diabetes.

How much stress do you have?
Since stress is a response to a threat, the more threat you feel the more stress you will have. But it’s only a threat if you don’t think you can handle it.

Stress occurs when you perceive threats greater than your power to control them. So the less power you have, or think you have, the more stress you will have.

You can evaluate your own stress with this mathematical formula.

STRESS = (perceived) THREAT / (perceived) CONTROL

This formula shows four ways to reduce stress. We can reduce the threat we are under. If it’s hard to pay the mortgage, maybe we can take in a family member or rent a room. We can reduce our perception of threat. For example, if your spouse yells at you, it’s not the end of the world. You are still a good person. Your life and marriage will continue.

We can also reduce stress by increasing our control or sense of control. If fear of complications keeps you awake nights, learning from Web sites like ours will give you more tools to control your diabetes. You may also feel more confident (perceive more control). All of this reduces stress.

Less power = more stress. So people with less money, less education, a minority skin color, or a disapproved (heavy) body type have more stress. That is why you see more illness, more narcotic use, smoking, and violence among poor people. They are reacting to or self-medicating their stress.

But you can lose power in other ways than being poor. People with less social support, less self-confidence, or lower self-esteem will sense less power and have more stress.

The life long struggle with heroin addiction of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman may be a good example. According to addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Maté, addicts say heroin makes you feel “safe” and “loved” like a mother’s embrace. People who feel scared, lost, or unloved will be pulled towards this kind of drug.

Get your control up
You may feel you face way too many threats. I often do. But we can do something about them. We can take small steps to build our sense of control. We can get together with other people for mutual support. We can try to change environments that threaten us, or move away from them. We can exercise when we’re stressed, like animals do.

I find myself relying more on spiritual approaches. Feeling connected to other living things and to the world, feeling like any threat, even death, is not that terrible. There’s a bigger picture in which everything is all right.

I wish you all a reduced sense of threat and increased sense of control in the coming months. Your body will appreciate the results.

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