Diabetes and Mental Health

Key points

  • Untreated mental health issues can make diabetes worse.
  • Problems with diabetes can make mental health issues worse.
  • Fortunately, if one gets better, the other tends to get better too.
senior man supporting his wife during a difficult time at home

Why it's important

Is mental health pretty low on your list of priorities for managing diabetes? This may change your mind.

Mental health has an impact on so many parts of daily life. It affects how you think and feel, handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. You can see how a mental health problem could make it harder to stick to your diabetes care plan.

The mind-body connection

Thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can affect how healthy your body is. Untreated mental health issues can make diabetes worse. Likewise, problems with diabetes can make mental health issues worse. But fortunately if one gets better, the other tends to get better too.

Depression: more than just a bad mood

Depression is a medical illness that causes feelings of sadness. It also can cause a loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy. It can get in the way of how well you function at work and home. That includes taking care of your diabetes. When you aren't able to manage your diabetes well, your risk goes up for diabetes-related health problems.

People with diabetes are 2 to 3 times more likely to have depression than people without diabetes. Only 25% to 50% of people with diabetes who have depression get diagnosed and treated. But treatment—therapy, medicine, or both—is usually very effective. And without treatment, depression often gets worse, not better.

Symptoms of depression can be mild to severe, and include:

  • Feeling sad or empty
  • Losing interest in favorite activities
  • Overeating or not wanting to eat at all
  • Not being able to sleep or sleeping too much
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Feeling very tired
  • Feeling hopeless, irritable, anxious, or guilty
  • Having aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems
  • Having thoughts of suicide or death

If you think you might have depression, get in touch with your doctor right away for help getting treatment. The earlier depression is treated, the better for you, your quality of life, and your diabetes.

Need mental health help now?‎

Call this confidential, free, 24-hour information service (in English and Spanish): 1-800-662-4357

Stress and anxiety

Stress is part of life, from traffic jams to family demands to everyday diabetes care. You can feel stress as an emotion, such as fear or anger. It can also be a physical reaction like sweating or a racing heart.

If you're stressed, you may not take care of yourself as well as usual. Your blood sugar levels can be affected too. Stress hormones make blood sugar rise or fall unpredictably. Stress from being sick or injured can make your blood sugar go up. Being stressed for a long time can lead to other health problems or make them worse.

Anxiety—feelings of worry, fear, or being on edge—is how your mind and body react to stress. People with diabetes are 20% more likely than those without diabetes to have anxiety. Managing a long-term condition like diabetes is a major source of anxiety for some.

woman outside doing yoga
You can also help lower your stress and anxiety by doing some relaxation exercises, like meditation or yoga.

Studies show that therapy for anxiety usually works better than medicine, but sometimes both together works best. You can also help lower your stress and anxiety by:

Getting active. Even a quick walk can be calming, and the effect can last for hours.

Doing some relaxation exercises, like meditation or yoga.

Calling or texting a friend who understands you (not someone who is causing you stress!).

Grabbing some "you" time. Take a break from whatever you're doing. Go outside, read something fun—whatever helps you recharge.

Taking care of yourself. Limit alcohol and caffeine, eat healthy food, and get enough sleep.

Anxiety can feel like low blood sugar and vice versa. It may be hard for you to recognize which it is and treat it effectively. If you're feeling anxious, try checking your blood sugar and treat it if it's low.

There will always be some stress in life. But if you feel overwhelmed, talking to a mental health counselor can help. Ask your doctor for a referral.

Diabetes distress

You may sometimes feel discouraged, worried, frustrated, or tired of dealing with daily diabetes care. Maybe you've been trying hard but not seeing results. Or you've developed a health problem related to diabetes in spite of your best efforts.

Those overwhelming feelings, known as diabetes distress, may cause you to stop taking care of yourself. You may slip into unhealthy habits, stop checking your blood sugar, even skip doctor's appointments.

It happens to many—if not most—people with diabetes, often after years of good management.

Did you know?‎

In any 18-month period, 33% to 50% of people with diabetes have diabetes distress.

Diabetes distress can look like depression or anxiety, but it can't be treated effectively with medicine. Instead, these approaches have been shown to help:

  • Make sure you're seeing an endocrinologist for your diabetes care. These specialists likely have a deeper understanding of diabetes challenges than your regular doctor.
  • Ask your doctor to refer you to a mental health counselor who specializes in chronic health conditions.
  • Get some one-on-one time with a diabetes educator so you can problem-solve together.
  • Focus on one or two small diabetes management goals instead of thinking you have to work on everything all at once.

Talk to your health care team

Your health care team knows diabetes is challenging but may not understand how challenging. And you may not be used to talking about feeling sad or down. But if you're concerned about your mental health, let your doctor know right away. You're not alone—help is available!