None of us are strangers to stress. We all experience stress at some point or another in our lives. Some of us feel “stressed out” every day, while others feel its effects primarily at certain times, such as during the holidays or when a life crisis occurs.
What is stress?
According to the National Institute of Mental health, stress is defined as “the brain’s response to any demand.” That may seem like an odd definition, but it’s interesting to note that stress isn’t always a bad thing. Stress can be either positive or negative. On the one hand, stress can be a lifesaver. For example, a stressful situation or even danger can trigger the release of brain chemicals and hormones that quicken your pulse, increase your breathing rate, tense up your muscles, and basically prepare you to fight or run away (hence the term “fight or flight”). If someone approaches you in a dark alley, your stress response allows you to either duke it out with your potential attacker or run for your life. Sometimes stress prompts you to buckle down and finish a project or gives you an energy boost to, for example, clean your house (due to the 10 people you’re having for dinner that night!).
On the other hand, stress that’s constant, called chronic stress, can affect your health, both mentally and physically. Chronic stress that results from, say, the loss of a loved one, a divorce, or losing your job can eat away at you and lead to depression and/or anxiety. You may also feel more irritable or angry than usual, or have trouble sleeping. Physically, persistent stress can affect your immune system so that you’re more susceptible to colds or other illnesses. It can also raise your risk of getting heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and irritable bowel syndrome.
How does stress affect diabetes?
If you have diabetes, you’ve probably seen firsthand how stress affects your level of control. For many people, stress can lead to higher blood sugar levels. This occurs because of the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline, for example) released by the body that raise blood sugars. High blood sugars can also result from the effects of stress on self-care behaviors. For example, if you’re stressed out, you may not feel like or be able to eat healthfully, exercise as usual, or even remember to take your diabetes medicines as prescribed.
How can you cope with stress?
If only we could snap our fingers and magically banish stress from our lives. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. While we may not be able to rid ourselves of stress, we can find ways to manage and deal with it. There are a lot of things you can do to cope with stress; you may need to try different approaches to find what works best for you. Here are a few to consider:
Meditation. It may sound New Agey, but anyone can learn to meditate, and it can be done anytime, anywhere — in the middle of a crazy work day, on the bus, or when you’re out for a walk. There are different types of meditation, but a simple way to get started is to initially find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Get comfortable and begin to breathe deeply. Concentrate on inhaling and exhaling. When your mind wanders (and it will), bring your focus back to your breathing. Be aware of what your body is feeling, whether it’s pain, warmth, or relaxation. It may help to repeat a mantra such as “om,” “peace,” or a prayer. If it helps, play gentle music to help you relax. What’s important is to practice your meditation as often as you can. To help guide you, check out some meditation apps, such as Headspace, Simply Being, Breathe2Relax, and Omvana.
Acupuncture. A form of ancient Chinese medicine, acupuncture’s aim is to stimulate certain points in the body, helping to correct imbalances in energy flow through channels called meridians. This is done by a practitioner inserting very thin needles into the skin. Studies indicate that acupuncture can be helpful for those with chronic pain, such as back pain, neck pain, or headaches.
Acupuncture may also help people who have chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. If you’re interested in trying acupuncture, make sure you choose a qualified practitioner who has a license or certification to practice. Most states require a diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for licensing. Also, be sure to find out how many sessions you’ll need and what the cost is; some health plans cover part or all of the cost of acupuncture, depending on the condition.
Physical activity. If meditation and acupuncture aren’t for you, that’s OK. You can beat stress with physical activity, too. You might be surprised that exercise can be considered a form of meditation: swimming laps, hitting a tennis ball, or concentrating on dance steps focuses your mind and your breathing, helping to energize and relax you at the same time. Physical activity also releases endorphins, those “feel good” chemicals that can trigger positive feelings and ease pain. Finally, moving your body boosts your mood, builds up confidence, and improves sleep quality.
Of course, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or can’t cope with stress, it’s time to seek help from a professional. Talk with your doctor or seek help from a mental health professional.