Stress: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Is the weight of the world on your shoulders? Do you find yourself gripping your steering wheel and shouting obscenities at fellow commuters? Do you sit at your desk with your teeth clenched and your heart pounding? If so, welcome to the club called stress.

Stress is something that most of us experience at some point or another, and with the holidays right around the corner, you might be feeling even more stressed out than usual. Feeling “stressed out” seems to be the norm for so many people, thanks to demands on us from work, school, family life, and world events. You might feel stressed about managing your diabetes — taking injections, checking your blood sugars, and paying for supplies can all add to your stress burden, for example. Can we escape stress? Maybe if we’re lucky, but getting away from it completely is probably unlikely. Can we at least manage it? Yes!

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The stress response
While we may differ in how we respond to stress, what we all tend to have in common is the body’s response (no, stress isn’t all in our heads). When a stressful event is taking place, our bodies have this amazing ability to get us ready to handle it. This is called the “fight-or-flight” response, and it dates way, way back to times when people had to routinely fight off predators (think: a saber-toothed tiger barreling towards you). These hormonal and other changes that happen in the body allow you to quickly run away or give you the strength and energy to fight off that predator.

While most of us won’t be fighting off tigers anytime soon, we still have that innate response to stress. While this is a good thing in certain circumstances, if we can’t really “fight” the situation and can’t run away from it, the effects on the body can build up and, over time, lead to health problems.

Stress symptoms
How do you know if you’re stressed? That may seem like a silly question, but maybe you aren’t sure, or you’ve become so used to feeling that way that you don’t identify it as stress anymore. Here are some common signs:

• Feeling “tense” in your muscles, including those in your shoulders, lower back, neck, and jaw
• Having a headache or a stomachache
• Feeling irritable, grumpy, or angry
• Having a fast heartbeat
• Not sleeping well
• Getting sick often

There are actually quite a few symptoms of stress. If you’re curious, check out this list on the website of The American Institute of Stress.

Stress and diabetes
Having any kind of chronic condition often can lead to stress. In the case of diabetes, one of the biggest effects of this stress is high blood sugars. That’s because the “fight-or-flight” response causes the release of glucagon and other hormones that raise blood sugar levels. High blood sugars that last over a period of time generally mean that you may need to take more (or start taking) diabetes medicine. You might also need to tweak other parts of your self-management plan, such as cutting back on your carbs or increasing your level of physical activity.

Common responses to stress
Think back to the last time you felt stressed. What did you do? How did you respond? It’s understandable that some people respond in negative or even harmful ways to deal with or try to banish stress. Common coping responses include:

• Drinking too much alcohol
• Smoking
• Taking recreational drugs or overusing prescription medication
• Not following your diabetes treatment plan
• Overeating
• Watching television or playing video games in excess
• Biting your fingernails
• Yelling at family or friends

While these responses may seem to work or help in the short-term, the reality is that they don’t help reduce the build-up of stress and may actually cause further stress.

Better ways to cope
It would be great if we could simply remove all sources of stress from our lives. You may be able to reduce stress by, say, taking the bus or train instead of driving, or quitting a horrible job and finding another. But some situations aren’t so easily changed. If you can’t beat it, deal with it. Here are some things to try:

Try to find a positive way to deal with situations. For example, rather than curse about the traffic that you’re stuck in (and can do nothing about), turn on your favorite radio station or listen to a book on tape.

Let it go. As Elsa would say from the movie Frozen, let it go. While this can seem hard to do, realize that some situations are beyond your control. Give yourself permission to accept them and realize that things will change.

Control what you can. Turn off the evening news if that makes you upset. Make a list of chores or tasks that you need to accomplish and tackle the easier ones first. If someone is behaving badly towards you, excuse yourself and walk away.

Give yourself permission to say “no.” Trying to please everyone (your boss, your family, your friends) is exhausting and stressful. Taking on or doing more than you feel you can reasonably do is a surefire path to stress. Practice saying no in a polite but firm manner.

Practice gratitude. During stressful times, it can help to reflect on aspects of your life for which you’re grateful. Many people find that keeping a gratitude journal helps them to stay positive and gives them perspective.

Take care of yourself. Make time for YOU. Doing so will help you better manage stress. This means:

• Staying active
• Eating healthy foods
• Paying attention to your diabetes
• Spending time with positive people
Meditating or practicing deep breathing
• Listening to music or watching a movie that makes you laugh (humor is a great way to beat stress)
• Getting enough sleep

Stress may not completely disappear from your life, but by knowing and accepting this fact, you can find ways to better deal with it and live a healthier life.

Thanksgiving is Amy Mercer’s least-favorite holiday, in no small part thanks to her Type 1 diabetes. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.