Can Stress Cause Diabetes?

stressed person with hands on their face

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Stress is a normal reaction that can have various physical and mental effects, including elevated blood glucose levels. Stress by itself does not cause diabetes, but there is some evidence that excessive and chronic stress can increase the risk of developing the condition.

Experiencing stress can also make managing diabetes more challenging, and having diabetes may contribute to elevated stress levels.

In this article, we discuss the connection between stress and diabetes and how one condition affects the diagnosis and treatment of the other.

The Connection Between Stress and Diabetes

One review found that people who experience stress had a higher risk of developing diabetes. Stressors linked to an increased risk of diabetes included:

  • Anger
  • Emotional distress
  • Sleep problems
  • Stressful life events
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Work-related stress

There are a few different explanations for this connection, which are discussed below.

Hormones

Stress causes the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which can contribute to elevated blood sugar levels. Evidence suggests that perceived stress levels are a significant risk factor for type 2 diabetes. 

Lifestyle Factors

In addition to the direct neuroendocrine effects of stress on elevated diabetes risk, high-stress levels can also be indirectly linked to diabetes onset. People with higher stress levels may also be more likely to engage in other behaviors linked to diabetes, including eating a poor diet, consuming high levels of alcohol, and smoking.

For example, research suggests that stressed people may be less likely to exercise regularly, increasing the risk of obesity and other metabolic problems.

Other factors that may increase the risk of developing diabetes include:

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Gestational diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Weight

For people with diabetes, the early days of learning to manage the condition can be particularly stressful. Paying close attention to what you eat, checking blood sugar levels, and giving yourself insulin injections can be challenging and may increase stress levels.

Complications of Stress and Diabetes

In individuals who already have diabetes, the release of stress hormones may contribute to blood sugar fluctuations that make controlling the condition more difficult. Stress can be a common trigger for high and low blood sugar episodes.

It is important to note that even "good" stress can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels. Mental and physical stress, such as worrying about your job or getting sick, can create negative stress. But even positive or exciting events, like riding on a roller coaster or winning an award, can create stress on your mind and body.

Stress can also adversely affect other diabetes-related health outcomes. For example, people with higher stress levels are more likely to have poorer emotional and physical health.

Furthermore, research suggests that people who experience chronic stress and who have poor stress coping skills are less likely to manage their diabetes effectively. This may also increase the risk of diabetes-related complications, such as heart disease, kidney disease, nerve damage, and foot problems.

When to See a Doctor

Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing increased thirst, urination, and fatigue, or if you notice any sudden changes in your blood sugar levels, as these might be symptoms of diabetes. You should call 911 or go to an emergency room if you are experiencing symptoms such as confusion, dizziness, disorientation, or seizures.

Diagnosis of Stress and Diabetes

If you suspect you might have diabetes, talk to your doctor. They will likely ask about your symptoms and family history to diagnose your condition. They may also order a fasting blood sugar test or a Hemoglobin A1C test, which measures your average blood sugar levels over the past two to three months.

If you’re already managing diabetes and think stress might adversely affect your condition, try to identify your stressors and find healthy coping mechanisms. Talk to your doctor if your blood sugar levels continue to fluctuate or if you struggle to manage your diabetes.

You should also talk to your doctor if you find it difficult to manage your stress. Stress is not a mental disorder, but it may be connected to a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression that might contribute to other symptoms.

Mental health disorders are diagnosed using the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5-TR). This manual, published by the American Psychiatric Association, categorizes different mental disorders and describes diagnostic criteria for these conditions.

Research also suggests that stress, depression, and diabetes may be linked.

Self-Test for Stress

One way to determine if stress affects your health is to take a self-assessment test. Ask yourself the following questions about your perceived stress levels:

  • Do you often find yourself becoming upset about unexpected events?
  • Have you recently felt stressed, anxious, or nervous?
  • Do you often feel like you cannot control the events of your life?
  • Have you had recent experiences where you felt like you could not deal with everything happening in your life?
  • Do you struggle to deal with the daily hassles and irritations of life?

If you answered 'yes' to many or most of these questions, it might be a sign that your stress levels are high. Finding ways to lower your stress and cope with it effectively can be an important way to protect your physical health and mental well-being.

You can also utilize the American Psychiatric Association's Severity of Acute Stress Symptoms scale to better understand the severity of recent stressors.

Treatment of Stress and Diabetes

If you have diabetes, it’s important to control your blood sugar levels. This may require a combination of diet, exercise, and medication. Work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that meets your individual needs.

Utilizing strategies to control stress is also important to an effective diabetes-management plan. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing stress, but some methods may help, including exercise, relaxation techniques (such as yoga or meditation), and counseling.

Medications

No medication is specifically approved to treat stress, but some drugs may help relieve symptoms of anxiety or depression. These include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and beta-blockers.

Medications that may be used to treat diabetes include insulin, metformin, sulfonylureas, and thiazolidinediones.

It’s important to talk to your doctor before starting any medication, as they can cause side effects and interact with other medications you may be taking.

Psychotherapy

Talk therapy, also called psychotherapy, is another treatment option for stress. This type of therapy can help you identify and change negative thinking and behavior patterns. It can also provide support and guidance as you manage stress.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a specific type of talk therapy that may be especially helpful for improving stress coping skills. CBT focuses on the relationship between your thoughts, emotions, and behavior. This therapy can help you learn how to change negative thinking patterns and develop coping skills.

If you have diabetes, working with a therapist familiar with the condition and how stress can affect it is important. Therapy may help you address symptoms of stress and feel more empowered to manage your diabetes.

Coping With Stress and Diabetes

There are several things that people can do to manage stress and reduce the risk of developing diabetes or to manage symptoms of stress if they have diabetes. Some stress-reduction techniques that may be helpful include the following outlined below.

Lifestyle Changes

  • Exercise: Exercise can help reduce stress levels and improve your overall health. It can also help you manage diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels and improving insulin sensitivity.
  • Relaxation methods: Practices such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing can help you relax and manage stress.
  • Healthy eating: A healthy diet can help reduce stress and improve overall health.

If you have diabetes, it’s essential to eat a balanced diet that includes foods that help control blood sugar levels. This may include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.

Limiting or avoiding processed foods, sugary drinks, and alcohol is also important. These items can cause blood sugar levels to spike and may contribute to weight gain.

Support Groups

If you have diabetes, consider joining a support group. This can provide social and emotional support as you manage your condition. There are also online forums and chat rooms that can connect you with others dealing with similar issues.

Summary

Stress and diabetes are connected in several ways. Stress can contribute to the development of diabetes, and people with diabetes may have difficulty managing their condition when they’re experiencing chronic stress. If you think stress might be affecting your diabetes, talk to your doctor. Together, you can develop a treatment plan that meets your individual needs.

A Word From Verywell

Several factors—such as family history, exercise, weight, and age—can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Stress can also elevate your risk, both directly and indirectly. 

Finding ways to reduce and manage your stress levels may help reduce your risk of developing diabetes. It may also help you better manage your blood sugar levels if you have diabetes. 

Look for effective stress relief strategies and talk to your doctor if you are concerned that you might have symptoms of diabetes. Treatments can help you manage your condition and minimize the risk of complications.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind 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.
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  6. APA. Severity of acute stress symptoms.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.