May 31, 2018

Diabetes self-management is more than a daily task. To properly cope with, and even conquer, this chronic condition, nothing short of making drastic lifestyle changes can ensure success. However, making dietary changes and incorporating a routine of physical activity can produce obstacles to improvement. One of those major hurdles to reaching your goal is stress.

Working toward maximizing positive outcomes in clients with diabetes, the Texas A&M Coastal Bend Health Education Center and the Ecumenical Center are collaborating to help clients deal with stress.

Stress’ effect on blood sugar

“Stress can lead to poor, ineffective blood sugar control,” said Lucinda Nurre, MS, LPC, an Ecumenical Center counselor who provides therapy for the center's diabetes education clients.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) says that stress can affect people with diabetes in two ways. One way is that people under stress tend to neglect taking care of themselves. For instance, they may drink more alcohol or exercise less.

The other effect of stress on those with diabetes occurs at a microscopic level.

According to the ADA, “In people with type 2 diabetes, mental stress often raises blood glucose levels. Physical stress, such as illness or injury, causes higher blood glucose levels in people with either type of diabetes.”

“We help determine causes of stress in our clients’ lives and give them the tools to manage it,” said Taylor Williams, PhD, LPC, Coastal Bend Regional Director of Clinical Studies for the Ecumenical Center.

Williams said she advocates for clients with diabetes to use the following methods to de-stress.

Mindful eating

“The exercise of mindful eating encourages clients to truly experience the tastes and textures of their food, rather than eat while distracted by the TV or internet," Williams said. "After doing this exercise, many clients say they feel full sooner.”

During counseling sessions, Williams said she gives “the client a few small pieces of food, such as a peanut and a strawberry. Before they put the food in their mouth, I ask the client to use their senses to examine the food they’re holding. To really take their time and smell, look at, feel the texture of the food. Then I have the client repeat the process after they have put the food in their mouth."

Progressive muscle retraction

The progressive muscle retraction technique has the client sitting comfortably while focusing on flexing and relaxing certain muscle groups.

“By paying attention to particular areas of the body,” Nurre said, “the client can become more aware of possible aches and pains they might have been ignoring.

“This technique can also help clients with diabetes get ‘in touch’ with extremities that are affected by diabetes, such as their feet. Clients become more aware of their body.”

Thought control

Another skill Williams teaches clients is to retrain their thoughts toward healthy foods when they feel tempted to eat junk food. She says even thinking about resisting unhealthy food can raise stress levels.

“Imagine you’re at work and you see a box of doughnuts,” said Williams. “You tell yourself, ‘I’m not gonna eat that. It’s bad for me.’ But your thoughts dwell on doughnuts. You almost feel like you need one. Instead of thinking about how much you’re not going to eat a doughnut, or some other junk food, think about a healthy snack or food you like.”

Redirecting your thoughts directly impacts your feelings and actions, Williams said.

“Regaining control of your thoughts by directing them toward healthy goals enables you to feel more relaxed, instead of feeling stressed.”

Conventional methods

The ADA offers additional ways to reduce stress, such as starting an exercise program or taking up a new hobby. Other ways to reduce stress are:

  • Making small changes to reduce stressful situations. For example, if heavy traffic upsets you, consider leaving a few minutes earlier to avoid jams.
  • Mending strained relationships. If you have a disagreement with a friend or relative, make the first move to right the wrong, even if you don’t believe you’re at fault.
  • Do breathing exercises. Sit or lie down with your arms at your sides and take in a deep breath. Hold the breath for a second or two and push it all out. Repeat this process while purposefully relaxing your muscles for five to 20 minutes.

While all these methods are valuable tools to reducing and coping with stress, it is still going to be a part of your life. There are no trophies for dealing with life’s difficulties without anyone’s help, but there is a valuable reward in seeking support from friends, family and health professionals: A happier, healthier life.

-Les Cockrell