It’s Not All in Your Head (But Your Head Can Help)

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Stress is one of the enemies of diabetes care, and one of the most frequent problems we face. It is stressful to check our blood glucose. It is stressful to think about complications. It is stressful to wait for our latest A1C. It’s stressful to follow a regimen that SHOULD work, or that usually DOES work, and see a result that doesn’t fit in with our projection. Diabetes will invite a lot of stress.

So what IS stress? I mean, really, what is it? It’s a term we throw around all the time, but when you get right down to it, we’re not usually talking about a tangible object like a hammer. We’re not talking about an observable phenomenon under a microscope. We’re talking about a very subjective experience when we talk about “stress.” We talk about it as if “stress” is a force outside of ourselves that “attacks” us, that seeps into us, and takes over. We talk about “combating” it, as if there is some personified external force named “Stress,” and we’re trying to outwit him or her.

But “stress” doesn’t have to be so vague, or subjective. You see, stress is a physiological reaction in the mind and body, the product of cognition igniting chemical chain reactions in our physical body that leads to the feeling we call “stress.” What we’re talking about is really just the tip of the iceberg. When we talk about FEELING stressed, we’re talking about a symptom of that chemical reaction.

Hormones, hormones, hormones
Two of the chief hormones that accompany stress are adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases blood flow, increases heart rate and blood pressure, and gives us energy. It also narrows our cognitive response from one that can see grey areas to one that merely chooses between black and white.

Cortisol does a few things, but of chief concern to people with diabetes, it raises blood glucose. This made sense in the days of the cavemen. If you were in real danger and had to exert extreme physical force or endure extreme physical hardship, you’d want that extra glucose in your blood to keep you going.

Now, I’m sure I’m not doing a thorough job here of describing everything going on. And that’s OK. I merely want to point out that there IS a concrete biochemical chain of events that occurs when we get stressed out. Because that leads us to another fundamental truth about stress.

It’s not IN your head, but it listens to it
The stress reaction is not a virus or a bug. We don’t catch it, and there is nothing inevitable about it. Stress is our bodies’ INTERNAL response to danger. In the modern day, we take all kinds of things for dangerous that really aren’t dangerous. The stress response is really good at helping us confront real, physical danger. If faced with a tiger in the woods, reflecting on the grey areas of what to do is a bad idea. You run, or you fight, or you freeze. And you make that decision QUICKLY, for God’s sake! But our physiological response isn’t much different when we’re facing chronic stress from a job, or traffic, or diabetes than it would be when facing that tiger.

And that’s the good news of it all. If we learn to better quiet our rampant, panicky inner voice, we learn to decrease the messages we send to our bodies that we’re facing a tiger in the woods. Stress isn’t IN your head, it’s in your body. But the physical stress reaction is sparked by that “danger” message we send from our head. Shakespeare wrote, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In other words, it is our own label that dictates how we will respond to the external forces we blame for our stress.

One more thing…
Lest this essay be taken as a simple antistress message, let me conclude with this: The body’s stress response is miraculous! It really is. If I’m ever in real physical danger, I know that chemical reaction will be there to get me through it the best way nature can. We need that response. What we need to avoid is taking mundane, daily irritations, or emotional issues, and responding to THOSE with the same stress reaction. After all, if we see everything as a tiger, what are we gonna do when one really shows up?

So save your stress reaction for those rare moments when you really do need it, and learn to quiet the mind when it starts panicking about the morning commute. It’s not a tiger; we shouldn’t treat it like one.

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