Stress and Diabetes

How stress affects diabetes (and what to do about it).

For many people, stress and diabetes go hand in hand. Stress can affect the onset of diabetes and can worsen the disease.

Diabetes is becoming one of the biggest epidemics facing this generation, and stress management is an essential part of controlling diabetes in order to live long, healthy lives! If you have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, reducing and eliminating stress is important for reversing diabetes.

This article will discuss how stress affects diabetes and how you can develop healthy habits to reduce and eliminate stress.

How Stress Affects Diabetes

Stress Raises Blood Sugar

Graphic showing the body's stress response and the body's systems that are affected by stress.Here’s a closer look at what happens when you encounter a stressor. Imagine you are camping and notice a bear at the campsite next to you—your hypothalamus signals to your body to release ‘fight or flight’ hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and energy. Cortisol increases your blood sugar and temporarily suppresses bodily functions that are not essential in this fight or flight situation (digestion, growth, immune system, and reproductive system.)

In this example of immediate danger (bear encounter), your hormones return to normal levels once you are out of danger. As a result, your blood sugar, blood pressure, and heart rate also return to normal levels, and your body resumes normal functioning.

But what happens when stressors are constant rather than an immediate danger situation?

Common Constant Stressors Include:

  • Work stress (job loss, unhappiness at your job, too many responsibilities, long hours, poor management, dangerous work environments, discrimination).
  • Death of a loved one
  • Increased financial obligations
  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Moving
  • Illness or injury
  • Emotional stress (anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, grief)
  • Family obligations (taking care of elderly, sick, or special needs family members)
  • Traumatic events (theft, rape, violence, natural disaster)
  • Fear and uncertainty
  • Change
  • Unrealistic expectations

In any of these situations of constant stress, your body reacts quite similarly to the immediate danger situation. However, because these constant stressors don’t go away, your body’s flight or fight reaction stays turned on. Long-term exposure to excess cortisol disrupts your body’s processes. Most importantly, when you are stressed, your blood sugar remains high.

Scientists have studied a clear link between stress and diabetes. “Results of longitudinal studies suggest that not only depression but also general emotional stress and anxiety, sleeping problems, anger, and hostility are associated with an increased risk for the development of type 2 diabetes.”

Stress Affects Lifestyle Habits

High levels of stress often lead to unhealthy lifestyle habits to help temporarily cope with the stress. Many of these habits can increase the risk of developing prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. For those who already have diabetes, these habits can significantly worsen the disease. Unhealthy lifestyle habits include:

  • Unhealthy eating / snacking
  • Lack of exercise / sedentary lifestyle / video games / social media
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Staying up late / poor sleep
  • Smoking / drugs

Stress Affects Fat Storage and Fat Cells

Woman sitting on the floor by her scale with her head in her handsWhen your cortisol levels are high, your body deposits fat around your abdomen. Studies have shown that stress can cause increased belly fat even in very healthy individuals. As you gain weight, your cells become more resistant to insulin resulting in higher blood sugar levels. If your body remains stressed with your ‘fight or flight’ hormones turned on, cortisol also continues to raise your blood sugar. Thus starts a vicious cycle of high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and weight gain that will culminate in type 2 diabetes if you don’t take action.

Stress Affects Your Blood Pressure

The hormone adrenaline is responsible for increasing your blood pressure in stressful situations. Research has found that high blood pressure or hypertension can be one of the results of constant stress situations. Having high blood pressure does not cause diabetes. However, having high blood pressure in conjunction with diabetes or prediabetes can worsen some of the complications of diabetes, such as kidney and eye disease.

Stress Affects Sleep Quality

When stressed, most people have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. The American Psychological Association found that stress interferes with sleep and keeps both adults and teens from getting enough sleep. Many people also report feeling increased stress as a result of poor sleep. Thus many find themselves in a vicious cycle – increased stress in their lives causes poor sleep, and then poor sleep causes increased stress because of the lack of sleep. Lack of sleep is also strongly linked to diabetes, as sleep deprivation causes increased blood sugar.

Learn more about the link between sleep and diabetes:

The good news is that managing and reducing stress has been shown to lower blood sugar and, in combination with other lifestyle changes, can help reverse diabetes.

Identify Your Stressors

The first step to lowering and eliminating stress is identifying situations where you are stressed and determining your stressors. This step isn’t as easy as it sounds. A major life change, such as a new job or the loss of a family member, may be easy to pinpoint. But what about chronic everyday stressors? Sometimes we become so used to these stressors being part of our lives that we overlook them.

Start a Stress Journal

Man writing in a stress journal.A stress journal can be a physical journal you keep with you, a phone app, or even the notes section on your phone or tablet. Choose something that will be easy to keep with you. Focus and listen to your body and notice when you feel stressed. Make a note in your journal of the time and details. If you have a CGM (continuous glucose monitor), note your blood sugar levels. If you don’t have a CGM, you don’t have to prick your finger every time you’re stressed, but we suggest doing so at least occasionally so you can see the effect stress has on your blood sugar levels.

Some things to include in your journal:

  1. What caused your stress (if you’re not sure, make a list and take your best guess; be honest and objective)
  2. Your blood sugar level
  3. How you are feeling, both emotionally & physically
  4. How you reacted in the situation
  5. What you did to reduce stress and make yourself feel better

It may also be helpful to ask your spouse or partner to let you know when you are stressed. Sometimes it’s easier for other people to notice patterns before you do. 

After a week or two of recording your stressful situations, you can analyze and interpret your data. Look for patterns – do you find you’re consistently stressed by a particular event, maybe giving a presentation at work? Or do you find yourself stressed during a time of the day, maybe in the morning, when trying to get yourself ready for work and kids ready for school? Also, pay attention to your blood sugar levels during these situations. Most likely, you’ll notice your blood sugar rises during each stressful situation.

Work To Reduce Stressors

Now that you have identified many of your stressors, you can work on eliminating stressors. For example, do you find that you’re consistently stressed when interacting with certain people in your life? Or do you find you get stressed when you have too much on your plate? Maybe you have some habits that cause stress.

While you might not be able to eliminate all stressful people in your life completely, you may be able to choose to spend less time with those individuals. For example, if you have a friend that is causing a lot of stress, perhaps take a step back for a few weeks and see how that affects your stress.

If you find you’re stressed out because you have too many demands, work on reducing your demands. Perhaps asking your spouse and children to help with more around the house or letting someone else volunteer to help at your church’s bake sale. We’re not advocating giving up all of your responsibilities. However, it is ok sometimes to say ‘no.’

Explore Ways To Lower Stress

Develop Healthy Habits To Reduce Stress

Woman doing a yoga pose in her house to reduce stress and improve insulin sensitivity.

  • Meditating for only a few minutes a day can significantly impact your mental health. You don’t have to sit cross-legged with your eyes closed – just try some breathing exercises to calm yourself throughout the day. In the heat of a stressful moment, take 5 minutes to close your eyes, focus on deep breathing, and tell yourself that you are going to be okay.
  • Yoga has been supported by decades of evidence-based research to improve mood, reduce stress, and even increase insulin sensitivity.
  • Journaling helps you get your feelings out instead of bottling them up or pasting on a smile when you’re upset. It also provides an opportunity for self-reflection and evaluating the causes of your stressors.
  • Exercise at any time of day can work to reduce your stress levels. But, when you’re in the middle of a stressful moment or week, sometimes you need something quick and easy. For example, try walking around your neighborhood for 10 minutes, doing some jumping jacks in your living room, or (if weather permits) taking a quick run around the block at lunchtime.
  • Take care of yourself. Make sure to get enough sleep. And don’t forget about taking breaks! Studies show that employees who take plenty of regular breaks throughout their workday experience less stress and higher job satisfaction than those who don’t break as often.
  • Spend quality time with your family and friends; it’s important to maintain your support network when you’re dealing with diabetes. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just call someone up, ask them out for a cup of coffee or play a board game at home.
  • Laughter is the best medicine.” They say that laughter is the best medicine, and there is abundant evidence to support this. When we’re stressed, we tend to lose the ability to feel joy, but we need you to work on finding ways to have fun either by yourself, with your kids or partner, or with your family and friends. If you can’t think of anything fun or relaxing during a stressful moment, just laugh – even if it’s just a small chuckle – because laughing does wonders for reducing stress!
  • Eating a healthy diet helps reduce stress by providing the body with essential vitamins and minerals necessary for optimal function. Eating a balanced diet also allows you to have more energy and feel happier, both of which can help reduce stress levels. Additionally, avoiding processed foods and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help keep your blood sugar stable, which can also help reduce stress.


Woman sitting outside relaxing and reading a book for self care.Self-care is an important part of reducing stress. When you’re stressed, you often forget to take care of yourself and end up taking care of everyone else instead. However, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t care for anyone else.

There are many different ways to practice self-care. Some people like to relax with a hot bath or read their favorite book. Others like to get outside and go for a walk or run. You can also try meditating, practicing yoga, or journaling.

It’s important to find what works for you and practice self-care regularly. You’re less likely to feel stressed and overwhelmed when you’re taking care of yourself. This allows you to cope with the challenges in your life more easily.

Check Out These Ideas for Self-Care:

  • Wear clothes that make you feel comfortable and relaxed.
  • Take care of your body by eating healthy food and getting plenty of exercise. 
  • Spend quality time with your family and friends; it’s important to maintain your support network when you’re dealing with diabetes.
  • Learn to say no when someone asks too much of you or tries to put stress on your shoulders. If necessary, set boundaries so others know what you will (and won’t) do for them without feeling guilty.
  • Prioritize sleep. Get seven to nine hours of sleep each night
  • Take care of your mental health by practicing self-care and getting professional help for any problems that may be causing stress.
  • Practice gratitude. Take some time every day to think about all of the good things in your life instead of focusing on the negative.
  • Remember to laugh! Watch a funny movie or tell jokes with friends so you can unwind and reduce stress through laughter.

It’s important to find what works for you and to practice self-care regularly. You’re less likely to feel stressed and overwhelmed when you’re taking care of yourself. This allows you to cope with the challenges in your life more easily.

Get More Out of Your Time

Too often, you may feel like you don’t have enough time to get everything done. This can lead to a lot of stress and feeling overwhelmed. However, there are things you can do to get the most out of your time and increase your productivity.

Close up view of woman organizing her schedule on a paper planner and calendar.One way to maximize your time is by using a planner or calendar. This helps you track what you need to do and when you need to do it. It also helps you stay organized and avoid overlap in tasks.

Another way to be more productive is breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. When you try to do too much at once, you can quickly become overwhelmed and stressed. By breaking things down, you can focus on one task and get it done. Then you can move on to the next one!

  1. Use a planner or calendar to keep track of what you need to do
  2. Break down tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks
  3. Get organized and avoid overlap in tasks
  4. Focus on one task at a time
  5. Take breaks when needed 
  6. Stay motivated by setting goals 
  7. Delegate when possible 
  8. Eliminate distractions 
  9. Set a routine and stick to it 
  10. Reward yourself for completing tasks

The Bottom Line

High levels of stress can lead to problems with insulin resistance. When you are stressed, your body releases cortisol, which prevents insulin from doing its job by decreasing uptake in muscle tissue and increasing storage as fat. This causes an increase in blood glucose levels. To reduce the impact of stress on diabetes, it is important to identify your stressors and then work on ways to lower and reduce stress.

Relaxation techniques such as meditation and mindfulness help reduce cortisol levels and improve insulin sensitivity. You can also engage in physical activity or light exercise for a burst of endorphins, which promote relaxation and may reduce the effects of stress on your body. Engaging in activities that provide a sense of community, such as spending time with friends, volunteering, or joining a group, are also beneficial because they improve mental health and may lower cortisol levels.

Reducing stress is an important part of reversing diabetes and has many other health benefits. It’s important to prioritize self-care and develop stress reduction techniques that work for you.