Everyone experiences stress at one time or another. What you experience as stress is your body’s response to something you consider threatening.

For example, if you encounter what looks like a poisonous snake in your garden, you have an immediate physiological response. Your body produces stress hormones that equip you to take quick action. These stress hormones affect many parts of your body. Your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase to give you more oxygen. Your muscles constrict so you can move quickly. The arteries in your arms and legs narrow so that, if you are hurt, you won’t lose a lot of blood. Your blood will clot more quickly in case you are wounded. Your liver pours out stored sugar so you have the energy you need to respond to the threat. This is an acute stress response, and it is your body’s way of adapting to something dangerous in your environment. It is also called the fight-or-flight response, because your body prepares you to fight or flee. You are on high alert. The stress response is designed to keep you safe when confronted with an immediate threat.

However, it becomes a problem when acute stress becomes chronic stress. Your body is not designed to remain on high alert for a long period. Chronic stress:

  • Elevates blood pressure causing high blood pressure
  • Increases the likelihood of blood clots
  • Compromises the immune system, making you more prone to disease
  • Elevates blood glucose levels, increasing your risk of complications
  • Increases the possibility for depression or anxiety

Diabetes & stress

Managing diabetes can be stressful. This is because it is a psychologically challenging disease that can interfere with your quality of life. Some challenges that contribute to stress include:

  • Adjustment to the disease
  • Following the treatment plan
  • Lack of social support.

How is stress related to high blood pressure?

When your nervous system is exposed to a stressful stimulus, your body releases stress hormones that increase blood pressure so you can respond to the stressor. However, with chronic stress, this sustained rise in blood pressure can damage arteries, causing them to form plaque that decreases the amount of blood that flows through the artery, raising blood pressure. Additionally, diabetes can lead to changes in the blood vessel walls making them thicker and stiffer. This thickening and stiffening of the blood vessel wall also increases blood pressure.

Strategies for managing stress

Individuals should set aside some time every day to relax. Stress can cause blood pressure to rise in the short-term. Find healthy ways to manage your stress. Too much stress may increase your blood pressure, but research suggests that the ways you manage your stress are actually more important. Avoid unhealthy stress busters (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, poor food choices) and find relief instead with exercise, socializing, laughter, and healthy eating. And don’t forget to take time out for yourself!

Exercise

In addition to being an essential part of blood glucose management, exercise is also vital for successful stress management. Some research suggests that exercise increases a chemical in the brain that reduces stress and anxiety, and can even make the brain’s response to stress more efficient. However, the type of exercise is important.

Exercise that is “forced,” or not enjoyable, is not as effective as exercise that is enjoyable. In other words, it is important to find an exercise you like. If you think walking on the treadmill is drudgery, then see if walking around a track outside is more enjoyable. If walking itself is unappealing, perhaps a recumbent bicycle would be appealing. Exercise that involves others has double benefits. For example, if you choose to play badminton, you get both exercise and social contact.

Mental fitness

Like physical fitness, mental fitness is vital for stress management. It is important that you find healthy ways to cope with things that upset you. You may want to consider talking with a counselor about ways to cope. Mental fitness is also learning to recognize stressful thinking patterns. Stressful thinking patterns are patterns that are inaccurate but increase your mental stress such as putting greater emphasis on negative events and downplaying positive ones, jumping to conclusions, and blaming yourself or others for things over which you have no control. Recognizing these thinking patterns is an important step to moving past them. Journaling is one way to write about your negative thoughts and to analyze them later in order to make positive changes.

Social support

Researchers are continuing to recognize the links between social support and physical health. A network can consist of family, friends, a faith-based community, or other naturally occurring support networks. These friendships based on common interests can assist people with diabetes in warding off stress-related illnesses.

Routines

This may seem surprising, but routines provide a degree of predictability that is necessary to minimize stress. Routine habits particularly help people with diabetes manage all the additional aspects of their disease – blood glucose testing, insulin administration, medications, exercise, etc. Routines help reduce stress associated with forgotten injections or medications or other consequences of disorganization.

Sleep

Adequate sleep is key to successful stress management. Sleep deprivation can have all kinds of consequences, from reduced mental sharpness to an increase in cravings for simple sugars. It also reduces your tolerance for stress and increases your vulnerability to illness. Sleep disorders like sleep apnea can contribute to chronic sleep deprivation. People who are overweight are particularly susceptible to obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep health is essential to good stress management, and, contrary to popular belief, you can make up for lost sleep. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, consult a doctor who specializes in sleep medicine.

Play

Play is not only for children. Leisure is an opportunity for you to pursue your interests for no other reason than you enjoy them. This kind of self-care provides you with an opportunity to recharge yourself while engaging in something you enjoy.

Professional help

Sometimes, stress and its related problems can exceed your ability to manage it. When this happens, and because of its impact on your diabetes, consider seeking professional help. A counselor can help you identify coping strategies for dealing with chronically stressful situations. Occasionally, medication may also be helpful in managing stress related problems, including depression and anxiety. If you’re human, stress is inevitable. While it is universal, its impact on a diabetes and blood pressure can have a vital impact on healthy diabetes and blood pressure management. Applying some of the behavioural and cognitive concepts described here can help manage diabetes more successfully and enhance quality of life.