I tend to write about various aspects of stress, mindfulness, and the psychology of diabetes fairly often. My background as a therapist probably has a lot to do with that. In any event, I was looking through my old blog entries the other day and thought it might be interesting to see what I could find out about the actual physical impact of stress on blood glucose. I tend to write about the psychological impact of it, and that’s certainly an integral part of the issue with chronic stress, but it has been shown to have physical effects on health — not just for people with diabetes, but for absolutely everyone.
What IS a stress reaction?
Our stress reaction is something designed into us, and it serves an important purpose. Or at least it CAN serve an important purpose. Our body’s chemical reaction to stress is as follows:
• Our body is flooded with several hormones, adrenaline and cortisol chief among them. Adrenaline increases our heart rate, raises our blood pressure, and limits our thought process to simple black-and-white, yes-or-no, fight-or-flight responses. Meanwhile, the cortisol helps raise our blood glucose! Yep, that’s right. The cortisol increases the level of glucose in our blood.
• In this heightened state, we are now capable of higher levels of physical exertion and endurance. We are thinking quickly — not thoroughly, and not seeing a big picture, but rather scanning for quick options and acting. The extra glucose in our blood helps fuel our heightened physical strength, endurance, and speed, as does the increased heart rate and blood pressure.
OK, so when would this reaction be useful? It would be helpful if we’re trying to outrun a bear, a lion, a wolf, or escape any dangerous situation and get to safety. In those circumstances, we absolutely need this chemical reaction in our body. We need the increased stamina, we need the extra glucose in our blood to keep us going, and we need to think in very simple, quick, black-and-white options. Facing a bear attack is no time to sit down and write a detailed pros and cons list about running versus not running.
Manhattan is one big bear
Taking a quick scan of our body’s stress reaction, we see that every single attribute works AGAINST what we need as people with diabetes. We need to see a big picture; stress hormones force us to think in simplistic, dualistic terms. We need to manage our blood pressure; stress hormones increase it. And most importantly, we need to manage our blood glucose; the cortisol works directly against this and raises it.
The difficulty we face is that our bodies make no differentiation between the stress of living in Manhattan and the stress of running from a bear. All of our daily chronic stress creates the same chemical reaction in our bodies. Stress from work, stress from family situations, and stress from diabetes all impact our physical bodies in this same way. And there’s certainly some irony in that last one. Having diabetes creates stress; heightened stress impacts diabetes. It can turn into one heck of a bad cycle. But that’s a column for another day.
To the archives!
The conclusion to all of this, of course, is that we must take every measure available to us to manage our stress, to center ourselves, and avoid falling into the kind of chronic stress that can severely impact our bodies’ ability to regulate itself. As you can see, it’s not just a matter of psychological health, or feeling calmer, or being able to think more clearly. It is all of these, PLUS a very real chemical process in our bodies that require us to manage our stress.
For recommendations on the various ways to manage stress, take a stroll through the archives of my blog. This is something I’ve written about on a pretty frequent basis. And in the end, the details of WHAT you do to manage stress aren’t important. We all have different things that we know work for us. Most often the problem isn’t that we CAN’T manage our stress, but rather we simply forget that we CAN. We forget to use the accumulated strategies that we know work. We get backed into our black-and-white thinking.
So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, try to remember this one simple thing: there is no bear. As bad as a situation might feel, your life is (probably) not in immediate danger (and if it is, by all means, let that adrenaline and cortisol flow!), and you don’t need to respond as if it is. Try writing this on a card and putting in your wallet:
THERE IS NO BEAR.