The Angry Type 2 Diabetic: Diabetes and Anger -- Is There a Deeper Connection?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Diabetes and Anger -- Is There a Deeper Connection?

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about diabetes and anger. In that post, I explored a lot of the day to day reasons why a person with diabetes might feel anger, and frustration. In fact, there are many reasons why a person with diabetes would, indeed, become angry. Those reasons can be varied, including anger at oneself for 'failing' to prevent the disease, to anger at family for not understanding or patrolling/policing the person with diabetes' behavior, etc. These are common types of anger: the anger that results from struggling to cope with a new and changing environment, for which we might have little control. (You can check out that blog post link, above, for a more in depth look at that topic.)

However, little did I realize that I was going to get such a huge response from the public -- but not about anger in this usual, common sense -- but anger in the chronic and mental health sense. Folks from all over the country have poured out their hearts to me in sheer frustration and worry over their loved ones, from sons to spouses, to friends. From lay people, to mental health professionals as well.

I must emphasize here, that I am NOT a mental health professional. I am not a medical expert of any kind, or a scientist. I am just a person with diabetes, with a blog. A person who loves learning every day, researching my own condition, and learning how to live and cope with it. Anything I say here is information you must take to your own clinician, or consult with your own mental health professional. It is also information that anyone can research on their own: never take my word for anything. Always be a skeptic.

Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let's start with the ways in which diabetes can clinically affect our moods.

Day to Day Blood Glucose Swings

When our blood sugars are not within normal or euglycemic boundaries (i.e., between 70-120 mg/dL, or 3.9-6.7 mmol/L), our mood and emotions will be altered. In some extreme cases, a person who, for example, experiences severe low blood sugar may become angry and even combative, or violent, or may seem 'drunk.' A person who experiences high blood sugar may experience sadness and depression, inability to concentrate, fatigue, etc. The root of all these glucose related mood swings has to deal with their association with the neurotransmitters in our brains, and how those in turn, communicate messages to our nerve cells about mood, appetite, and even sleep. Dealing with these states of mind is challenging, and can be tiring for the person with diabetes, as well as bring on a short temper. To top it off, having a negative disposition may also bring on bad blood glucose numbers, creating a vicious cycle that feeds off itself.

Chronic Mood Swings

The problem with being on this persistent 'roller coaster' of high and low blood glucose swings is that it can be bring about permanent, and chronic, mental health problems. Problems such as clinical depression, anxiety, anger, and a whole host of mental health conditions, like bipolar disorder.

According to a study on "Diabetes and Psychiatric Disorders," by the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, "Diabetes and psychiatric disorders share a bidirectional association -- both influencing each other in multiple ways." So much so, that apparently scientists back in the late 1800s found diabetes to be a disease which had been present in families with a pronounced history of mental health problems, so that insulin shock therapy was used as a treatment for mental health disorders even as shortly as insulin was isolated for the first time.  (Yes, insulin has a role in mental health, and even in the development of such diseases as Alzheimer's.)

This study further points out that there are several ways in which both diabetes and mental health problems can show up:

In my personal and anecdotal experience, I am a person who suffers from dysthymia. Dysthymia is a type of low grade, long term depression, which can subside and be in the background, for much of one's life. It is much milder than regular depression. However, in situations in which I have had an undiagnosed, and chronic health condition, such as hypothyroidism, or type 2 diabetes -- the imbalances in health provoked episodes of severe depression. The conditions influenced my depression and worsened it. In this way, uncontrolled diabetes can worsen or complicate a mental health condition that is already present, making overcoming of both conditions a challenge. 

It could very well be that the sudden and deep mood changes many persons with diabetes have experienced were the result of these drastic, and long term changes in blood glucose influencing an already underlying mental health problem -- especially if the diabetes was left undiagnosed or untreated for an extended period of time. It is particularly difficult for a person with diabetes that is weighed down by these mood changes, to find the motivation and positive inclination to manage their health condition. Quality of life tends to be reduced, and so does optimism, which can lead to development of unsavory habits, such as uncontrolled diet, smoking and drinking -- habits which can exacerbate mental health problems and lack of control, to an already breaking point. 

How Do We Help? 

In my previous blog post on anger, I noted several ways in which we could be of support to a person who was being burdened every day by the management of their diabetes. Being a good listener, helping a person cook meals, and being empathetic, are all proper ways in which we can deal with a loved one's chronic health condition. The Behavioral Diabetes Institute provides resources for us to utilize when we are overcome by our day to day emotions when managing diabetes, and may feel burnt out, or depressed. 

However, there are situations in which we need to be more proactive in identifying the mental state of our loved ones. Understand that, outside of a rare and severe hypoglycemic event, violent and aggressive behaviors are NOT standard complications of diabetes. These are not typical or normal behaviors for a person with diabetes. (Grouchiness is.) If a person you love is experiencing warning signs of serious mental health problems, you might need to have a conversation with them about visiting a mental health professional. This is an intimidating task, and there are suggestions out there, on how to broach the subject. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a good Resource Guide for Families Dealing with Mental Illness. In it, they address what to do for 'crisis intervention,' when a person's behavior is particularly violent, or out of control:
If the individual with mental illness is in danger of physical injury, if his or her behavior is out of control or others are in danger, it is important to know what steps to take. Plan ahead by locating available sources for help: your emergency phone number (911), police or sheriff department number, Community Mental Health crisis or emergency number, name and phone number of a mental health professional, friends or neighbors who may be of help, and the nearest NAMI affiliate. Keep these numbers posted by the telephone. 
Any behavior such as this, that falls outside of both a mental health disorder, or a severe hypoglycemic episode, is unjustified violence, and should never be tolerated. Do not put up with it. 

. . .

Mood swings can be a standard part of diabetes mellitus and its attendant blood glucose fluctuations. However, when chronically unregulated, these blood glucose fluctuations can bring about more serious mood disorders. These mood disorders are NOT a standard symptom of day to day diabetes management, and will usually not ameliorate on their own. If you are living with a person who has become unpredictable, or violent, due to a potential mental health disorder, please seek help from your local community mental health centers, a mental health professional, or from your family physician.


  1. In my mind, I think of it as 'crazy angry' because that's what it feels like inside. I've noticed it starts at 15 mmol (270 mg) and it tends to subside at about 22 mmol (396 mg). That seems crazy in itself, but that's what happens time and time again. I think it's important for our drs to understand - and perhaps more research done to give them guidelines to better identify and treat us - cannot be emphasized enough!

  2. This is one topic that needs more research. As a family member, I don't do enough or I am nagging - I am blind to the situation although I pour over books and websites for food ideas - and although I've been asked to make him go to the gym with me, I nag him so much that he doesn't want to go anymore. I am not a good wife, I love sweets and although I try to keep them out of the house, I cave in when it is suggested we go out for ice cream. This roller coaster isn't just for the diabetic, it is the family too that is on the ride. I am in a constant state of doubt and always waiting for the next time I zig instead of zag and become the unsupportive, nagging wife again. Thank you for this blog, at least I know we are not alone <3

  3. I've only just found the blog as I seem to have been being angry to people in a slightly irrational way. I'm not depressed I just got kind of angry and I'm convinced it's because of my diabetes. I have suffered from depression in the past (complicated grief) but I think that's now behind me – but I do wonder if it's what caused my Type 2 Diabetes to develop. Thank you for informing and providing a forum for these thoughts. Mark Neeter