Although Alison Muir was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 5, it wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she resolved to get serious about managing the disease – and the stresses that come with it.
“With diabetes, there are a lot of complications if you’re not paying attention and if you don’t have good habits,” says Muir, now 45, a chief operating officer for a software-development company in Vancouver.
“I was in a bit of denial and I just thought ‘this has to change,’” she says. “I’ve noticed over the years the importance of simplicity; and the balancing act is basically with diet, exercise, healthy relationships, finding work that isn’t too demanding and stressful.”
Dr. Jan Hux, chief science officer at the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA), acknowledges that living with diabetes can be emotionally overwhelming if you’re trying to manage it solo.
“It’s tough when you’re first diagnosed. You go to a diabetes education class and it’s sort of like taking a sip from a fire hose – there’s just so much to learn,” says Dr. Hux. “You can’t do this alone.”
Whether diabetes is new to you or you’ve had it for years, these suggestions for dealing with stress may help you better manage the disease.
1. Seek support
According to Dr. Marie-Hélène Pelletier, Assistant Vice-President of Workplace Mental Health, Group Benefits for Sun Life Financial Canada, diabetes requires a great deal of behavioural change and constant management, “which is very demanding psychologically.”
The CDA found that 30% of people living with diabetes experience symptoms of depression.
“Managing a chronic illness can come with emotional, cognitive and physical demands,” Dr. Pelletier says. “It’s important that people living with a chronic illness learn how to manage both the physical and psychological aspects of their condition and seek help if needed.”
Help and education about all aspects of the disease can come in many forms, from your doctors and nurses to the CDA website.
Dr. Hux recommends asking your doctor for advice on which resources you can – and should – access.
“In most cases that will involve being referred to a diabetes education centre, where there should be a whole array of healthcare professionals – dieticians, nurses, pharmacists and social workers – who can help you learn about diabetes,” she says. These experts will help address the mental health and wellness components of diabetes.
“More and more, people with a chronic physical condition will add a psychologist to their healthcare team to ensure they’re receiving support for all aspects of their health,” says Dr. Pelletier.
2. Chemical benefits of exercise
In addition to weight management, exercise also plays a role in caring for the body’s chemical makeup and how it reacts to medication. “Long-term stress causes changes in the body’s chemistry, especially adrenaline and cortisol, which make a person more resistant to insulin and consequently glucose management,” says Dr. Paul Oh, medical director of the Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation Program and GoodLife fitness chair at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, University Health Network. “Exercise is a positive way to clear away stress and reverse these chemical changes.”
This doesn’t mean you have to start running marathons, however. Muir found going to the gym created more stress for her because her blood-sugar levels would be very high after working out.
“It seemed counterproductive,” she says. But when she took up yoga everything changed. “I remember going to my first class,” she says. “It was like an absolute eureka for me. I just felt this energy that I hadn’t felt for a long time.”
Muir tries to do the practice daily because of its calming effect on her body: “I wake up and do a yoga class and it sort of sets the tone for the day with my blood sugars.”
3. Journaling: Put it down on paper
James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is one of the founders of expressive writing as therapy, and through his studies has found that disclosing feelings and thoughts via writing can alleviate stress, and the effects of stress on the body.
Journal writing can be done as often as you like – studies have found benefits with writing just once a week – with stretches of 15 to 30 minutes recommended per session. Find the way that you like to write (pen and paper versus tablet, for instance) – and to help take control of diabetes management, write about challenges and wins with the disease, and how certain actions and activities make you feel.
4. Mastering meditation
“Mindfulness is an ancient technique from eastern medicine, but it’s only recently been acknowledged by western medicine,” says Dr. Hux. “It’s very helpful in terms of non-judgmental self-assessment. Just taking the time to be aware of what’s my body experiencing? What are those thoughts? Not being judgmental, but acknowledging and being aware.”
In 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, published a study focused on 47 clinical trials about the effects of meditation and found that it can have a positive impact on stress, anxiety and depression.
Muir tries to meditate for 20 minutes every day. “I kind of consider it like taking a shower, it’s just part of my life,” she says. “Like yoga, it really keeps me present and mindful. I don’t react so quickly to things. I’m not so impulsive. You can get swept up in situations, especially social situations, with drinking and eating and staying up late. Meditation gives me a mindfulness to remember that, ‘well, okay, if you do that there’s going to be a consequence.’”
- Are you at risk of developing type 2 diabetes? Find out by taking the CANRISK online diabetes risk assessment test.
A simple meditation for stress management
This mediation exercise from The Great Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkley, which focuses its work on “research-based methods for a happier, more meaningful life,” is suitable for any time of day.
- Find a comfortable position, sitting on a chair or the floor, or even lying down.
- Closing your eyes can help you focus, but it’s not necessary.
- Start with a deep breath. Inhale through your nose for 3 seconds, pause, and then exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
- Then, breathing normally, focus your attention on your breath – maybe it’s the movement of your chest or the sound it makes. Thoughts may pop into your mind; simply acknowledge the thought, but then return your attention to your breathing.
- Continue for 5 minutes.