Managing a chronic condition can be tough — even more so when the emotional toll that comes with it wreaks havoc on your mental health and well-being. Persons with diabetes are all too familiar with the hardships that come with managing the condition, from number checking to lifestyle changes to doctor’s appointments. But how do these things affect a person with diabetes mentally? How can one make sure to take care of the physical and emotional side of managing a chronic condition like diabetes? Linda Wood, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist, helps us explore these challenges.
How Diabetes Affects Emotions
Wood states that the daily juggle of making important decisions having to do with managing diabetes can take an emotional toll on anyone.
“It’s exhausting,” Wood says of the amount of mental upkeep it takes to manage diabetes.
Checking blood sugars, planning meals, always making sure to have medication and supplies available — it adds up. So much so that there’s even a name for this: diabetes distress.
In persons with diabetes, there can be intense fear regarding blood sugar levels and the control of diabetes in general. It’s believed that 33-50% of people with diabetes will experience diabetes distress at some point, according to Mental Health America.
“This is not all in their head,” explains Wood. “Blood sugar [fluctuations] can lead to fatigue, brain fog, and mood swings.”
And according to Mental Health America, persons with diabetes may not even realize their mental health is suffering because the effects of high and low blood sugar can mimic the symptoms of depression and anxiety easily. This means that persons with diabetes who are also struggling with their mental health often go undetected and don’t seek help.
Additionally, financial stress can take an emotional toll on persons with diabetes. The cost of insulin has risen over the years, and some individuals aren’t able to afford it even with insurance coverage. Wood acknowledges that there is some good news on this front, though.
“Texas has recently passed a law to make insulin more affordable for people with diabetes, who are on state-regulated health plans” she says. “At the Federal level, a bill that was recently passed in the House and introduced in the Senate limits cost-sharing (co-pays) for private insurance and the Medicare prescription drug plan. Steps like these should help more people afford insulin in the future.
The Stigma Around Diabetes
Imagine being diagnosed with a chronic condition and then being blamed or shamed for it. Any other disease, illness, or condition would be recognized with care and compassion by others in the community. And yet, those diagnosed with diabetes often receive criticism and scrutiny instead.
“[People] may look down on them [by] believing they caused their diabetes. They might think they simply ate the wrong foods, ate too much, or couldn’t manage their weight,” Wood claims. “Many persons with diabetes are overweight, which comes with its own stigma.”
The DiaTribe, a foundation with a mission to bring awareness to diabetes, states that these judgements have adverse effects on persons with diabetes. They may feel stressed, guilty, or embarrassed. This may lead to poorer diabetes management in the long run, and, in worst cases, not seeking care when they should.
Fortunately, Wood brings up a critical point as a counter to these hurtful stigmas.
“The truth is,” she states, “diabetes is a very complex disease; we don’t have a cure for it and we don’t know what causes it. One lifestyle can contribute to getting diabetes, but it’s not the only factor. Genetics plays a large role in getting Type 2 diabetes.”
Blame does not do any good. There are many factors that go into the diagnosis and management of diabetes, and a person with diabetes is not always in control of those factors.
Ways to Combat Judgement
Managing negative opinions is crucial to minimizing the emotional toll that persons with diabetes face. Sometimes, educating those around you could help reduce judgement. When others are able to understand where you are coming from, they may have more empathy for your situation.
Another thing to try is to find a support group. Wood says that surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals is the perfect buffer when it comes to judgement.
“Many well-meaning friends or family members often will judge [those] with diabetes out of their own fears and ignorance,” Wood remarks. “Being with others who face similar challenges can provide support.”
And when you find others who think the same way you do, it’s easier to focus on what is true, instead of on the negative.
“Texas Health has multiple diabetes support groups throughout the metroplex,” says Wood, “and there are many social media sites for persons with diabetes to interact with one another.”
Wood also recommends that persons with diabetes should work on building up the confidence to stick up for themselves and the decisions they make. For example, if someone were to criticize when you get up to get a second helping of mashed potatoes, it might be helpful to say, “Just like you, sometimes I want a bit extra” or “I’m counting my carbs and I know how this fits into my meal plan.”
Interrupt The Negative Self-Talk
While criticism from others is a big source of stress when it comes to managing diabetes, sometimes it can be your own thoughts that bring you down.
This may happen when a person with diabetes feels as if they are not meeting their health goals. The resulting negative self-talk is overwhelming.
Healthline has some good tips, like doing your best not to let your numbers define you or your self-worth — a number is just a number. And don’t forget: you’re human, and all humans have bad days. It’s not you that’s at fault.
Wood also expresses how important it is to stop yourself as soon as the negative self-talk begins.
“Many of us don’t even realize all the negative things we say in our head each day,” she points out. “What would you say to a friend who is struggling in some area of their life? Be your own best friend and say those positive things to yourself.”
Finally, Wood suggests tasks like listening to music or physical activity to help boost your mood. Keeping a journal or a record of your thoughts throughout the day is a helpful exercise in discerning which ones are true and which ones are not. Find the things that enhance your mood and help you deal with diabetes.