How Stress Is Connected to Diabetes

Stress affects every part of your body. It releases hormones, increases muscle tension, and interferes with heart health. Some of these changes only last for a little while, but if you are experiencing stress daily, these changes can add up and affect your long-term health.

In most cases when you're diagnosed with diabetes, you'll have a lifelong illness to manage. It takes consistent effort to track your blood sugar levels, and this can add stress to your day. Being aware of how stress is affecting your diabetes and learning techniques to reduce stress can help you to better manage your blood sugar levels. 

How Does Stress Affect Blood Sugar?

Verywell / Mayya Agapova

Stress Caused by Diabetes

Living with a chronic illness can cause stress. A chronic disease like diabetes requires a daily effort to control blood sugar levels. This includes:

  • Taking prescribed medications
  • Checking your blood sugar levels
  • Implementing dietary changes
  • Losing weight
  • Increasing physical activity

It's common for people with chronic illnesses like diabetes to experience burnout from the everyday tasks associated with managing the disease, but staying on top of your diabetes management routine can also help control your stress levels.

How Stress Affects Blood Sugar

Stress affects your blood sugar in several ways, and most of these are related to your hormones. When you are stressed, your body triggers the fight-or-flight response, which is how the body prepares to protect itself from a perceived danger.

This can result from daily stressors like work or family issues or from an acute illness like the flu.

Two hormones that get released during the fight-or-flight response are:

  • Adrenaline
  • Cortisol

Adrenaline triggers the release of another hormone called glucagon, which directly affects your blood sugar levels.

Glucagon has the opposite effect of insulin, such as:

  • Insulin stimulates cells to take in the sugar derived from food, providing the cells with glucose for energy. It is released when blood sugar levels are high.
  • Glucagon, on the other hand, stimulates your liver to release stored glucose and to make more glucose. It is released when blood sugar levels are low.

Your body releases these hormones during periods of both acute and chronic perceived stress. Over time this response can throw off your blood sugar levels, especially in people who are at risk for or have been diagnosed with diabetes because they have a harder time using insulin to manage glucose within their cells.

Research also has connected high cortisol levels with increased blood sugar levels and decreased secretion of insulin. Elevated levels of this hormone cause glucose production and lead to higher blood sugar levels.

Stress also takes a mental toll, making it more difficult to consistently take care of yourself.

If you are wondering if stress is affecting your blood sugar levels, you can try comparing your stress levels to your blood sugar levels. One study recommends rating your perceived stress, such as on a scale of one to 10 (with 10 being the most stressed), and recording your blood sugar level at the same time. After a few weeks of tracking, you may be able to notice a trend in your stress and blood sugar levels.

Can Stress Cause Diabetes?

Stress doesn’t directly cause diabetes, but it has been identified as a risk factor. High stress levels also can make it more difficult to keep your blood sugar levels under control. 

How to Cope with Stress

It’s possible to reduce your reaction to stressors by using techniques to help manage your stress levels. Self-care activities can help you to feel better throughout the day and reduce the negative effects stress has on your health.

Stress-Management Techniques

The following techniques can help manage stress:

  • Meditating: Meditating has been shown to reduce negative thinking and help your mind and body to relax. It can be difficult to sit and meditate if you aren’t used to it, so you can try starting with just a three-minute meditation to get used to being still.
  • Taking a deep breath: In response to stress, it’s common for heart and breathing rates to increase. Taking a slow, full breath can help the body to slow down and relax a little.
  • Exercising: Physical activity helps to reduce stress by releasing some of the energy produced in the stress response. It's also beneficial for people with diabetes by increasing the body’s ability to properly manage insulin.
  • Journaling: Writing down your thoughts can help to get them out of your head, releasing stress.
  • Talking with a loved one: Talking with someone about your stressors can relieve some of your anxiety and help you to feel supported. 

Diabetes Support

It can feel lonely to manage a chronic condition, but you don’t have to go through it alone. There are many options for online and in-person support.

Check local hospitals, community centers, or try looking through the website of the American Diabetes Association for community support groups. You could also ask your healthcare provider to refer you to a group outpatient program.

Stress and Depression

Depression can affect everyone. Sometimes stress, sadness, and anxiety won’t go away, and it can leave you feeling hopeless. If you are feeling the symptoms of depression, it’s important to discuss this with your healthcare provider and get support to help manage your feelings.

Common symptoms of depression include:

  • Loss of interest or pleasure
  • Changes in sleep
  • Loss of energy and trouble concentrating
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities you used to enjoy
  • Difficulty completing work and a decline in performance

Seek Help

If you or a loved one are having trouble with depression, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-622-4357. This free service is available 24/7 and will help connect you to resources in your area.

A Word From Verywell

Diabetes can introduce a lot of different challenges to your life, including stress. Stress can alter your blood sugar levels and make it more difficult to manage your diabetes. Practicing stress-management techniques can help you control your diabetes and make it possible to live a happy, healthy life.

Finding support that works for you and making lifestyle changes can help to reduce your stress and effectively manage your blood sugar levels. 

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lloyd C, Smith J, Weinger K. Stress and diabetes: a review of the linksDiabetes Spectrum. 2005;18(2):121-127. doi:10.2337/diaspect.18.2.121

  2. Harp JB, Yancopoulos GD, Gromada J. Glucagon orchestrates stress‐induced hyperglycaemiaDiabetes Obes Metab. 2016;18(7):648-653. doi:10.1111/dom.12668

  3. Kamba A, Daimon M, Murakami H, et al. Association between higher serum cortisol levels and decreased insulin secretion in a general populationPLOS ONE. 2016;11(11):e0166077. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166077

  4. Harris ML, Oldmeadow C, Hure A, Luu J, Loxton D, Attia J. Stress increases the risk of type 2 diabetes onset in women: A 12-year longitudinal study using causal modelling. PLoS One. 2017;12(2). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172126

By Ashley Braun, MPH, RD
Ashley Braun, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian and public health professional with over 5 years of experience educating people on health related topics using evidence-based information. Her experience includes educating on a wide range of conditions including diabetes, heart disease, HIV, neurological conditions, and more.