Whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, testing your blood sugar is critical to managing the disease. Measuring your glucose levels multiple times a day is the only way to know if your sugars are too low or too high.
To some people with diabetes, testing is a minor inconvenience. To others, it’s very stressful. Testing anxiety can get so extreme that some people avoid doing it altogether. When you skip glucose tests, you put yourself at risk for uncontrolled blood sugar — and all the complications that come with it.
Why blood glucose testing causes anxiety
Testing anxiety is more than a fear of needles, although worry over the fingerstick is a big barrier for some. Above and beyond the pain, some people get woozy at the thought of sticking a needle into their finger. About 10 percent of adults have needle phobia, while others have a phobia of seeing blood. They have a real physical response to needles that can range from a rapid heartbeat to fainting.
Licensed clinical psychologist and certified diabetes educator William Polonsky, PhD, has come up with several other reasons why people with diabetes avoid checking their blood sugar. For one, regular testing reminds people they have diabetes, which can be stressful.
Polonsky writes, “… some people feel so upset about living with diabetes that they work hard to avoid ever thinking about it. If you feel this way, the act of monitoring can become an in-your-face reminder that ‘yes, you still have diabetes,’ so you don’t do it.”
The thought of an abnormally high number can also cause anxiety. “You might have had a terrific day in all other ways, but one unwanted number can ruin it all,” Polonsky says. When you’re stressed out, your body releases stored insulin, raising your blood sugar level even further.
If a well-meaning family member or friend happens to peek at your numbers, they can add to your stress by giving you a hard time about the way you’ve been eating or exercising.
With frequent testing, keeping tabs on your blood sugar can feel like it’s taking over your life. It affects meals and social outings. You can’t travel light if you have to lug a bag full of testing supplies everywhere you go.
When it’s time to test, you might stress about where to do it. You can either excuse yourself and search for a bathroom, or deal with your friends’ stares as you draw blood in front of them.
And if your blood sugar happens to be out of range, you may have to rethink the meal you were planning to order or adjust your insulin.
Finally, testing supplies are expensive. If you’re living on a budget and your insurance doesn’t cover testing supplies, the costs can make you anxious. One study from 2012 found that monitoring blood sugar can cost nearly $800 a year — a big bill for someone living on a fixed income.
Overcoming blood glucose testing anxiety
There are a few methods you can use to reduce or get rid of the discomfort of fingersticks.
Take smaller blood samples
Use a meter that requires the smallest drop of blood possible, suggests certified diabetes educator Ann S. Williams. “If you only need a small drop of blood, you won’t have to poke your finger as deeply to get it.”
Choose a lancet with the narrowest possible needle, and dial in the shallowest depth. Use a new lancet each time you test, because the old one can get dull.
Go from finger to finger, switch sides of the finger, or switch to your palm, arm, or thigh. Check with your doctor first though, because these sites might not be as accurate if your blood sugar is high.
When you prick your fingers, draw blood from the sides rather than the center. “The sides of the fingers have fewer nerves than the center pad of the fingertips, so they hurt less when they are lanced,” Williams says. Your doctor and diabetes educator can go over these and other techniques to help reduce the pain of fingersticks.
Also, work with your treatment team to fine-tune your diabetes plan. By better managing your glucose levels, you won’t have to stress about readings being out of range. In fact, you might begin to look forward to testing if your numbers are consistently in range.
Schedule daily tests
Make blood sugar testing part of your routine. Schedule your daily tests into a calendar, or schedule reminders on your phone to stay on track.
Have supplies packed and ready to go at all times so that you’re not rushing around on your way out. Keep a meter and set of testing strips at home, at work, and other places you regularly go. Find an area at each of these places where you know you can test in private.
Use a continuous glucose monitor
Some continuous glucose monitoring systems (CGMs) can cut down the number of fingersticks you’ll need, and help you get a better handle on your blood sugar.
Here’s how it works: A small sensor under your skin continuously checks your blood sugar level and sends the results to a monitor or smart device.
A CGM can automatically show you how your glucose levels respond to food and exercise and sound an alarm when they get too high or too low (some send results to your doctor).
Knowing you have this device to help monitor your levels can take a lot of the stress out of testing.
Join a support group
If you’re still feeling anxious, consider a support group or one-on-one counseling. Or see a therapist who specializes in diabetes. They can teach you useful strategies to help you with testing anxiety. Some therapists also have methods that can get you over your fear of blood or needles. You can also try techniques on your own, such as deep breathing and meditation, to help you relax when it’s time to test your blood sugar.
Discover ways to save
Ask your doctor about assistance programs for people living with diabetes. These can help with the cost of testing supplies if your insurance company doesn’t cover them fully. These manufacturer-sponsored programs can make meters and strips more affordable.
You can also save money by switching to store-brand meter and strips, using a mail-order service, or getting a loyalty card from your local pharmacy.
Once you beat your anxiety, blood glucose testing will no longer be as stressful. It will be just another part of your routine — like brushing your teeth or showering.