Diabetes was a major catalyst for change for me because managing this disease effectively required action, and action is the antidote to anxiety.
Whether you’re newly diagnosed or have been living with diabetes for years, the reality is that living with a chronic illness like diabetes isn’t easy.
There’s plenty of research connecting the dots between diabetes and anxiety, and honestly, just reading articles about anxiety can induce feelings of anxiety for me. When I think back on my journey in managing diabetes and my mental health, one thing is abundantly clear: Diabetes was a major catalyst for change for me because managing this disease effectively required action, and action is the antidote to anxiety.
Before we jump into my personal experience and some tips to help you turn your anxious thoughts into action, I want to call out a helpful distinction from Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, PhD, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at The City University of New York. This insight from her book “Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad)” gave language to a realization I had early on in my diagnosis:
“Anxiety and anxiety disorders are not the same. Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion that people commonly experience. It’s felt along a spectrum, from barely perceptible to overwhelming. But extreme levels of anxiety aren’t enough to diagnose an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are only diagnosed when our ways of coping with intense and enduring anxiety (whether with worries, avoidance, withdrawal, or obsessiveness) are out of proportion and disrupt our ability to function at work, in our personal lives, or physically. The problem in modern society isn’t the experience of anxiety — it’s that how we cope with it can lead to a debilitating anxiety disorder. Treating all anxiety as a disease hinders us from finding ways to manage and use anxiety to our advantage, and from benefiting from treatments when we do need extra support.”
Before being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2017, my inability to cope with my feelings of anxiety was starting to manifest in mentally and physically destructive ways. I’d have frequent panic attacks and distorted and invasive thoughts, and I’d catastrophize any bad situation and follow the worst-case scenario all the way into the ground. In the aftermath of these episodes, I’d be exhausted and irritable.
When I was diagnosed with diabetes, my anxiety sky-rocketed and the invasive thoughts took over most of my day. Why was I diagnosed with a chronic illness at 32 years old? What would this mean for the rest of my life? Would this mean I need to be locked into a job that provides health insurance so I can afford medications? Would I be on medications for the rest of my life?
Immediately following my diagnosis and after I allowed my anxiety to consume me for a bit, I did what I do best after I’ve allowed myself to feel the big feelings: reframe them into something positive. I visualized what I’ve named “The Quadrant,” a handy visual that helps me check in with myself and my diabetes management. The quadrant contains the four categories that impact blood sugar levels: nutrition, movement, medication, and stress.
I made radical lifestyle changes to my diet, how I moved my body, and the medication I was prescribed to help manage my blood sugar levels. I saw incredible results within a few months on my physical body, but my glucometer still showed high blood sugar readings.
Once I realized that the stress in my life was one of the biggest contributing factors to my high blood sugar levels, I got curious about what was stressing me out. My “feels normal but it shouldn’t be” level of anxiety wasn’t doing me any favors, let alone the additional stress I was internalizing about my diagnosis. I knew this stress was a factor in my high blood sugar readings and the stress would keep me there.
After a few months of prioritizing time outside and utilizing hiking to get my body moving, clear my mind, and feel connected to something bigger than myself, I started to feel more comfortable in my body. As I felt more comfortable in my body, some of the negative chatter in my mind quieted down. Once the negative chatter quieted down, I recognized my anxiety for what it is: a cue from my body that something is out of alignment.
Once I had this awareness, it was like a switch flipped for me. Instead of assuming the worst and following the thoughts all the way down the mental health drain as my brain started to spiral, I recognized those thoughts as cues. And when I would start to worry about my future and how diabetes would impact it, I would redirect my focus and take action.
Instead of sitting and stewing in my worry, I would go for a walk and get curious about what was actually going on, or I’d sit down with my journal and free-write until my anxious thoughts were out of my body and onto the paper.
Once I got to the root of my anxiety, I could create a plan to take action. When I had a hypoglycemic episode at a concert on a Friday night, my anxiety was through the roof all weekend. Would I drop to the floor again at any moment? What was happening in my body?
Once I was able to schedule a call with my doctor, I immediately felt less anxious. When the doctor told me what likely contributed to the hypoglycemic episode, I had information to work with to avoid another episode, which reduced my anxiety once more.
Here are some quick ways to check in with yourself and turn your anxious thoughts into action:
If you’re fidgety and need to put that anxious energy to good use, go for a walk, sit under a tree, put your feet in the grass, or splash some water on your face. Do whatever you need to do to redirect that attention. Plus, if you get up and go for a walk, even if it’s around the block until the jitters go away, you’ll experience the benefits of moving your body and clearing your head. Win-win!
Stock your fridge and pantry with items that contribute positively to your blood sugar levels.
When I was first diagnosed, a lot of the diabetes-related anxiety was tied to how to nourish myself. Once I got my nutrition plan dialed in, the only items in my pantry and fridge were ones that would contribute positively to my desired health outcomes.
That way, when I was hungry and felt like a bottomless pit that required all the snacks, at least I knew the snacks I was choosing weren’t going to make my blood sugar spike, which would give me more anxiety.
Write down what is worrying you and bring that to the appointment.
The act of writing down your worries will lessen the immediate anxiety because you’re taking action. And while your primary care doctor or other diabetes-related specialists may not be mental health professionals, they are there to help you manage your disease and can recommend different solutions to the things you may be worried about.
Give yourself time and space to pay attention to the cues your body is sending and start this practice first thing in the morning.
No more rolling over to pick up your phone and scroll through your notifications. Have you seen the news lately? There isn’t much good news being shared and consuming all that negative information first thing before you’ve even had a chance to take a sip of water or go to the restroom isn’t going to bode well for your anxiety levels.
When you wake up, check in with yourself. How does your body feel? How is your mental health? What kind of support do you need today? What is your capacity to support the people who rely on you at home, at the office, or in your social life? Trust that you can show up exactly as you are, that you’re worthy of the support you seek, and then go about your day accordingly.
Diabetes-related anxiety is all too common. Getting to the root of your anxiety and taking action is one of the best ways to lessen your anxious thoughts. Check in with yourself, pay attention to your body, and speak with a doctor if you need extra assistance in getting your anxiety and diabetes under control.
Medically reviewed on September 19, 2022
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