Staying Calm With Diabetes: Responding Without Overreacting

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Living with diabetes means learning how to deal with stress. Even the best controlled among us have to deal with unexpected highs and unpredictable patterns from our bodies. When we are fighting off a bug, our numbers will often surge. We might get our carbohydrate count wrong and end up with a high number. We might be in the midst of a particularly stressful emotional situation and watching our blood sugar Ping-Pong up and down. And in this age of technological advancement, when our continuous glucose monitor can show us our blood sugar every single minute of every single day, the feedback loop can become infuriatingly constant.

In my 23-year diabetic “career,” I have found that the most tempting “bad habit” to engage in when facing this kind of stress is to overreact — that is, to overtreat. When our blood sugar surges high, it’s awfully tempting to respond by overloading ourselves with a BIG dose of insulin to bring it back down quickly — partly out of a desire to get back in range, but often also out of a desire to “get back” at that high number — “Oh yeah? You want to go surging on me? Fine. Take THIS, you stupid blood sugar!” It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t dealt with diabetes, but anyone who’s lived with this disease probably knows exactly the feeling I’m talking about.

Of course, we all know it’s counterproductive. It simply leads to a surge down, which will have to be corrected with some sugar later, and that next correction can easily lead to another surge back UP, and so on and so forth until we’ve driven ourselves crazy! So what can we do about this so that 1) our blood sugar doesn’t become locked in a yo-yo of highs and lows, and 2) our mood doesn’t get sucked into a black hole of irritation and anger? Here are some strategies I’ve learned over the years (and sometimes, I even use them…. Other times I still get sucked right into that yo-yo of overreaction I’m talking about. Hey, living with diabetes is a marathon, not a sprint; we can’t get it right all the time).

Breathe
Yogis and meditators have know this for centuries — when you’re getting worked up, just sit down, AVOID taking any immediate actions, and just focus on your breathing. It’s standard pop-therapy advice, too. But just because it’s clichéd doesn’t mean it’s not useful. It’s incredibly useful if we just choose to use it. And it’s so utterly simple. When you’re feeling the emotions rising, just stop, close your eyes, slow your breathing, and count 10 breaths. After 10, check in with how you’re feeling. If your emotions are still rising, take 10 more breaths. Repeat until you feel like your thoughts are in control of your emotions. Then, take reasonable actions to correct the blood sugar that sent you into an emotional spiral.

Accept
Getting super-angry at a blood sugar won’t change that blood sugar. If your meter is telling you you’re blood sugar is 267, it’s telling you what has ALREADY happened. You can’t do anything about what’s already happened; you can only do something about what happens next. There’s a great Buddhist quote that applies here:

“No amount of regret can change the past; no amount of anxiety can change the future.”

The wisest actions come out of an acceptance of the current situation, and a calm understanding of what next step will produce the best result. The less emotional turmoil is involved, the better. Having trouble with the acceptance? Try breathing.

Refrain from judgment
Along with an acceptance of the “bad blood sugar,” it’s important to refrain from the self-judgment that can come with it. A 267 on the meter can easily turn into “I’m a bad diabetic” in your head. But it doesn’t have to. The 267 could mean you’re particularly stressed out. It could mean the label on the food you ate was wrong and there were more carbs than you thought. It could mean your body is fighting off a bug. Or it could just mean it’s one of those “those” days. The point is, 267 does NOT equal “bad diabetic,” and the more you can untangle those two thoughts, the more successful you will be at responding well to what your body is telling you.

So, that’s it. Try to remember these ideas. You won’t always succeed; none of us do. Our numbers get away from us sometimes, and our emotions get away from us sometimes. But that’s OK. Just come back to what makes sense and keep moving forward.

Want to learn more about maintaining your emotional health with diabetes? Read “Meditation and the Art of Diabetes Management,” “Reducing Diabetes Stress: Alternative Treatments,” and “Relaxation Techniques for Stressful Times.”

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