What is Stress and How Does it Affect us?


Stress and Diabetes
How the Body Handles Stress
Stress and Blood Glucose Levels
Personality, Stress and Blood Glucose Levels
What is Stress and How Does it Affect us?
Research – Stress


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What is Stress and How Does it Affect us?

An article by Dr David Lowenstern in ‘Reading Out’, the journal of the GBS Support Group explains this very well:

  • Stress is something that interrupts our routines and causes us to change. It is disquieting and distressing.
  • We develop routines and habits of doing things and anything unexpected or unfamiliar is a stressor.
  • A stressor can be useful up to a point as it increases our performance and encourages us to strive and cope with difficult things. There may come a point when it becomes difficult and we can cope no longer. This happens with long standing conditions or illnesses [like diabetes].

What happens when we get very stressed?
We have a stress reaction which may be an automatic nervous system response affecting our blood pressure and heart rate causing sweating. But there may be other psychological effects that are not so easy to deal with, such as depression and frustration [diabetes can be very frustrating, as can be many long-term conditions!]

Depression and frustration are expressed in many different ways:

  • We embellish things, fantasies run wild and we start feeling things that aren’t actually there [ eg imagining the whole world is against us or that people are talking about us].
  • We get anxious and worried about things that might happen.
  • We get angry and very, very angry.

How often are we encouraged to be angry?
Dr Lowenstern points out that this is very rare because we become seen as rude and impolite and are avoided by other people. But every time we feel anger and we don’t express it, we are being rude and impolite to ourselves.

The stiff upper lip, keeping things bottled up and doing the right and proper thing, is not necessarily the best thing to do because stress comes out in other ways. It builds up like steam in a pressure cooker with the vent closed and then it blows. This is what happens to us if we keep the stiff upper lip at a time of stress – our feelings and frustrations spill over and our families tell us we are very difficult to live with. This is something we cannot always see for ourselves.

How do we cope with stress?

This depends on several factors:

  • Our own particular style of coping.
  • The time scale.
  • Our inherited ability to cope.
  • The availability of support.
  • How much control we can retain.
  • What kind of stress we are under.

There are 4 main coping styles with stress or a crisis:

Denial – When we don’t want to know about it, we are told but we shut our ears. This can be helpful because it gets us through the day and protects us, but it can be obstructive and self-defeating. For example, the diagnosis of diabetes is stressful and can cause denial but if the denial extends to actually not taking the prescribed insulin, then there is a very real problem.

Regression – This is when we use what is tried and tested from the past. We become younger and tend to be child-like. Very competent people when faced with what, to them, is an awful situation can be reduced to crying like a baby – even though this doesn’t sort out the problem.

Inertia – This is just giving up thinking, with statements like “What’s the point?” or “It’s all too hard”. Inertia does not get us very far, it’s infectious and may cause our family to give up too.

Mature problem-solving – This is a mixture of expressing our feelings about what is going on, trying to realistically weigh up what is happening and finding some sort of acceptance of it within ourselves. It is not giving up, not losing all the fight within us but accepting the situation.

For many of us being able to talk and share our experiences or our worries is the way we deal with stress. Women are often far better at this than men because men tend to believe that they are strong or are expected to be strong. So men are much more likely to be the pressure cooker with the vent closed.

The clear message from Dr Lowenstern is:

“Keep talking, don’t be silent. If you feel like crying, cry and if you feel angry, be angry. Don’t keep quiet as far as doctors are concerned – keep sticking up for yourselves and remind yourself that it is your body and your life and you have a say in it. Retain some sense of control of what is yours but at the same time recognise that there are some limitations, especially as you get older.”

Quote from a parent: “With mild stress I know I clean the house furiously from top to bottom. I also know the value of previous experience. When my daughter was diagnosed with diabetes I found it very stressful and when I got divorced some 10 years later, I also found this very stressful but I recognised the same feelings – denial, anger, grief, the sense of loss. I knew I had coped the first time and I could, therefore, cope the second time as I had previous experience of a very stressful situation.”

Ten general tips for coping with stress

1. Avoid self medication with nicotine, too much coffee, alcohol or tranquillisers
2. Work off stress – physical activity is a terrific outlet.
3. Don’t put off relaxing.
4. Get enough sleep to recharge your batteries.
5. If you become sick, don’t try to carry on as if you are not.
6. Agree with somebody – life should not be a constant battle ground.
7. Learn to accept what you cannot change.
8. Manage your time better and learn to delegate.
9. Know when you are tired and do something about it.
10. Plan ahead by saying ‘no’ now. You may prevent too much pressure piling up in the future.

In Diabetes Interview Nurse Janice Betz simply recommends five ways of handling stress and perhaps the last recommendation is the one we should try to remember, even when times are hard:

  • Exercise
  • Adequate sleep
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Getting a massage
  • Maintaining a sense of humour!