The Diabetes-Anxiety Link

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Health experts know that physical health and mental health can influence each other. This mind-body connection goes both directions. Reactions occur in your body to the way you think and feel. You can also shape the way you think and feel when you improve your physical health. Knowing this, it’s not surprising there is a link between diabetes, stress and anxiety.

Stress and anxiety affect blood sugar levels.

Stress and anxiety are common problems. Specific events, such as the death of a loved one, can cause acute stress and anxiety. But these emotions can also occur fairly constantly. This is especially true for those living with a chronic medical condition, such as diabetes. Having diabetes is akin to a demanding, full-time job: You need to take medicine, monitor blood sugar levels, avoid complications, change lifestyle habits, and more. Unfortunately, stress and anxiety can cause havoc with blood sugar levels. This in turn can be stressful, leading to a snowball effect.

Stress and anxiety have two effects:

  • Your body interprets stress as an attack. As with any sign of danger, a fight-or-flight response begins. Your body releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones boost blood sugar (glucose) levels to give you extra energy. For healthy people, insulin takes care of this extra glucose to help you use it or store it for later use. However, people with diabetes may not have enough insulin to handle it. In most people with diabetes, the result is high blood sugar levels. Some people with type 1 diabetes may see their sugars plummet.

  • People with stress and anxiety may not take good care of themselves. Some people turn to unhealthy food or alcohol when they feel stress. Others may neglect exercise, healthy meal planning, taking medicines, or checking blood sugars. This may be because they don’t feel like doing these things, they don’t think they have the time, or they simply forget. Whatever the reason, blood sugar levels can suffer.

Blood sugar levels can cause stress and anxiety.

On the other side of the mind-body equation, blood sugar levels have an affect on stress and anxiety. This is true whether levels go too high or too low. First, anxiety and nervousness are physical symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Beyond that, blood sugars that frequently run high or low can cause emotional stress and anxiety. Diabetes can be a very emotional disease. It’s easy to blame yourself, feel guilty, or worry about dire consequences.

Managing stress and anxiety can help control diabetes.

Your body reacts to how you feel and vice versa, so you can use the link to your advantage. Start changing the dynamic by identifying the things that stress you out. Get rid of what you can. Then, learn to manage the rest.

Do these things to fight stress and anxiety:

  • Get regular physical activity. Exercise—even if you don’t like it—is a proven way to release tension and reduce stress and emotional anxiety.
  • Learn relaxation techniques. This could include deep breathing, meditation, massage, or a mind-body exercise, such as yoga.
  • Practice healthy living. This includes getting plenty of rest, eating a balanced diet, and limiting alcohol use.
  • Take up a hobby. This could be a craft or a calming activity, such as reading.
  • Volunteer your time. Find a local charity or hospital.

Coping with stress can be difficult. Sometimes, professional counseling is the key to getting it under control. A counselor can help you learn healthy ways to express your feelings and find balance in your life. 

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 2

  1. Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

  2. Dealing With Diabetes Stigma. American Diabetes Association.

  3. Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Glucose). American Diabetes Association.

  4. Mind/Body Connection: How Your Emotions Affect Your Health. American Academy of Family Physicians.

  5. Stress. American Diabetes Association.

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