Diabetes and Holiday Stress

Stress can wreak havoc on blood sugar. Here's how.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 20, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

The holidays are right around the corner, and they often come with a heaping helping of stress. That extra tension can seriously affect your blood sugar, experts say, in at least two significant ways.

1. Hormonal changes. Stress wreaks havoc on your hormones, and the release of stress-related hormones like cortisol can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels. That's true whether or not you have diabetes. But when you do have the disease, getting your blood sugar back under control is much harder.

To see how stress affects your own blood sugar, try this experiment: Pick an upcoming situation that could be stressful in the short term. Maybe it's a job interview or a public-speaking commitment. Check your blood sugar a few hours before the event, then right before the event, and then again immediately after.

"This can give you a ballpark idea about your own personal response to stress," says John Zrebiec, LICSW, director of behavioral health at Joslin Diabetes Center.

2. Taking care of yourself -- or not. "Diabetes is largely about self-care: meal planning, exercise, taking your medications on time, keeping track of your blood glucose," says Susan Guzman, PhD, co-founder of the Behavioral Diabetes Institute.

"When there's a lot going on in your life, you're more likely to grab comfort foods. You're less likely to count carbs and make sure you're taking the proper insulin dose," Guzman says. "Of course, things like not eating right or not getting enough sleep affect everyone under stress, but when you have diabetes, the cost of making these mistakes is higher."

So how can you get a handle on stress and keep your diabetes care in check?

Know yourself. Understand what your stress signals are. Do you feel panicky and anxious? Depressed and overwhelmed? Cranky and irritable? Do you overeat?

Breathe. Take deep, slow breaths from your diaphragm. This tells your brain to send oxygen to your muscles, helping you relax.

Set yourself up for success. Set an alarm on your computer or phone to remind yourself to get up and take a short walk every hour. Stash healthy snacks and your blood glucose meter in a handy desk drawer, and keep any holiday treats far away, Guzman says.

More Expert Tips

Feeling stressed this holiday season? Consider this advice from Zrebiec.

  • Rather than accept every holiday invitation, practice politely saying no.
  • Let go of your expectations that you have to do everything, and do it perfectly, this holiday season.
  • Set limits. Plan for what you can do, and say no to what you can't. Then, when unpredictable things happen -- and they will -- you won't be too worn down to handle them.

Show Sources


Diabetes Care, October 1992.

Psychosomatic Medicine, July-August 1993.

John Zrebiec, LICSW, director of behavioral health, Joslin Diabetes Institute, Boston.

Susan Guzman, PhD, director of clinical and educational services, Behavioral Diabetes Institute, San Diego, CA.

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