Stress is a major contributor to diabetes, as I’ve written about in both of my books. But recently, I’ve been thinking more about what to do about stress. How can we reduce it, and how can we cope with it?
First, what is stress? Stress is our bodies’ reaction to a threat or a challenge. Long ago, it was a physical threat from an enemy or predator. Now, the threats are more often economic or emotional. But our bodies don’t know the difference. They still react by raising blood pressure, increasing insulin resistance, and making other changes to our chemistry.
All of these are good for running away from a threat, but bad for long-term health. And modern stresses don’t go away in a few minutes, like a hungry predator would. They’re with us 24/7 if we let them be.
Strangely, our bodies can react to good things, like a child’s wedding or a job promotion, with the same reaction as they have to bad things. That’s because good stresses put demands on our bodies, too. Learning to reduce and manage stress is a major part of living well with a chronic condition.
Next week, we’ll get into ways of coping with stress. Today, let’s talk about reducing stress—here are some ideas:
Avoid stressful situations—easy for me to say, isn’t it? I’m stuck in bed with this knee injury anyway. But sometimes we can avoid exposure to stress. If being stuck in traffic makes you want to scream, can you leave earlier or later to avoid the rush? Can you plan your life so as not to have to drive so much? Can you take the bus, or do things closer to home?
Think about what situations stress you, and see if you can brainstorm some ways to avoid them. Let us know what you come up with or what you need help with.
Change the way we think about situations. Say you’re back in that traffic jam. Ask yourself “What is it about this that is stressing me? What’s the worst that could happen?” Maybe you can find ways to relax or even enjoy the time, perhaps by finding some good music to listen to. Perhaps you could pass the time remembering or imagining a pleasant experience or fantasy.
Or say an argument with your spouse leaves you frightened, angry, or depressed. Can you remember that you’ve had arguments before and gotten over them? Nobody will leave you over one fight.
If you can, prepare for stressful situations in advance. What is it about the situation that will be hard for you? Before you get there, practice how you will handle yourself, what you will say and do.
Reduce demands—decide for yourself what’s really important, and let some other things go. You don’t have to be perfect in work, housekeeping, or relationships. Save time for what really brings rewards into your life. People who love you won’t care if your house is spotless. Being the hardest worker in the office won’t get you into heaven or lower your HbA1c level.
Get more help. This is usually the best thing you can do. Can you get someone to watch your children so you can relax, or take you on errands? Someone who can come with you to a doctor’s appointment? Can you find someone you can talk to? Just talking about stresses can sometimes reduce them. Can you get on disability or find other sources of financial support?
Change your environment. It’s hard to relax when your home is full of noise or bad feelings. Can you make the space you live in safer, quieter, or more supportive? Are there doors you can close, or can you “get away from it all” once in a while? What can you do to improve relationships in the family? Would therapy help?
Set limits—learn to say NO. Don’t answer your phone every time it rings—that’s what answering machines are for. Don’t try to do everything for everybody, all the time.
Breathe! Deep, focused breathing nearly always reduces feelings of stress. I’ll talk more about breathing next time. I’ll also talk about exercise, one of the best ways of coping with stress.
What have been your experiences with stress? What causes it, and what effects does it have on you? What has worked for you in reducing stress? Let us know.