Suzanne Foreman had long been a believer in the power of yoga, meditation, and journalling to help her keep her mood even and her body feeling good. She had not kept up those habits in recent years, until she was diagnosed three months ago with type 2 diabetes. “The first thing I did after the diagnosis was blame myself,” says Foreman, a 57-year-old masseuse/reflexologist in Hamilton, Ont. “I told myself: ‘You idiot, you should have known better. You could have prevented this. It’s totally your fault.’ But I soon realized that wasn’t helpful and then started asking myself, ‘So what are you going to do about it?’”
What Foreman decided to do was “reinvigorate those things that worked in the past.” Now she does 30 minutes of yoga and 20 minutes of meditation each day, and keeps a daily journal she calls “The Reckoning,” which tracks her experience with diabetes, including how she is reacting to dietary changes and questions to ask her doctor. “It’s a place to put a lot of my emotional energy—it’s almost meditative because it gives me a few minutes every day to write down what I’m thinking and feeling,” says Foreman. “It’s like a love letter to myself, a quiet cheerleading exercise that tells m e I can do this, I can manage. It’s about self-compassion.”
Mindfulness helps both mentally and physically
People with diabetes have higher rates of depression and anxiety than do people without the disease; they also live with the risk of developing long-term complications and must deal with the constant day-in-day-out self-management of a disease that can sometimes be unpredictable. This can impact people not just psychologically but also physically, because stress can affect weight loss and exercise efforts, and over time can lead to increased blood sugar levels.
Mindfulness practices can go a long way toward helping people with diabetes manage the stress that living with a chronic condition can bring.
Stress reduction practices—whether meditation, tai chi, a walk in the woods, reiki (a therapy that uses touch to rebalance ‘life energy’), journalling, yoga, a creative pursuit such as singing or knitting, positive self-talk, or even deep breathing—can help calm the mind and body, and help a person be more in control of their health.
“When stressful things happen, the body responds in a particular way—stress hormones get released and this causes inflammation and short-term problems with our blood sugars,” explains Michael Coons, a clinical health and rehabilitation psychologist based in Burlington, Ont., and a co-author of the mental health chapter of the Diabetes Canada 2018 Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Diabetes in Canada. “With a regular mindfulness practice, people will react less intensely when things go wrong, because they have a tool they can use that helps them change their perception of the experience.”
Researchers have found that mindfulness practices, which are designed to help you deliberately focus your attention on the present moment without judging your thoughts, can boost your mood and decrease stress—and that, in turn, makes it easier to maintain healthy habits. Studies show such practices can improve everything from weight loss to sleep hygiene. For example, Canadian researchers who analyzed 19 studies involving 1,160 participants with overweight or obesity (52 of whom had type 2 diabetes) found mindfulness meditation helped participants lose an average of 3.5 per cent of their body weight, according to a 2017 report in Obesity Reviews. And a 2011 study from the University of Minnesota found that meditation significantly improved insomnia and overall sleep patterns.
More confidence, less pain
Crystal Johnson, a 39-year-old Vancouver registered clinical counsellor who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 11, says a daily walk, 20-minute meditation session, and regular yoga routine help her keep things in perspective when, despite her best efforts, her blood sugar levels are not exactly where she wants them to be. “Whether it’s intended or not, there’s a perception that people are judging you because they don’t always understand the factors involved in dealing with diabetes,” she says. “Meditating helps me stop some of the self-judgment by recognizing there will always be times when managing diabetes will be challenging.”
Johnson has also discovered that meditating helps her cope better with the pain of injections. “I am able to relate to the pain in a less reactive way. I still acknowledge the pain, but I try to bring mindful attention to it, rather than flinching.” Research supports the idea that the brain patterns of people who meditate appear to show that they are better able to separate themselves from what their senses are telling them.
Most importantly, says Johnson, meditative practices keep her in the present, instead of worrying about the future or thinking about the past. “With mindfulness practices, you are able to live more fully in the moment,” she says. “Rather than repeatedly berating yourself for yesterday’s hyperglycemic [high blood sugar] episode or worrying over an upcoming medical appointment, you can focus on what you are doing today.”
Coons says many of his patients with chronic health conditions have experienced real benefits from mindfulness practices. “It increases their confidence because they have tools they can use when their life or body feels out of control. They know there is something they can do that will have a positive impact on their health and well-being.”
Foreman says the best part of her renewed commitment to meditation, yoga, and journalling is that she has gained “a sense of being back in control” that makes her feel hopeful about the future. “I’ve known for years about the changes [to my health routines] that I needed to make, and made half-hearted efforts. Now I am making a fully conscious effort, and it’s working.”
The last word
“[So often we] get caught up in whatever direction the day is going in and we forget we have a choice to stop for a few minutes. Those few minutes can make a huge difference in how the rest of our day goes.”—Suzanne Foreman, recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes
“People [with diabetes] may worry about the possibility of developing health complications in the future, or kick themselves for not living differently in the past. The concept of mindfulness and being present in the here and now is going to be very helpful for them.”—Michael Coons, psychologist and co-author of the mental health chapter of the Diabetes Canada 2018 Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Diabetes in Canada
“One of the challenges of living with diabetes is that there are so many unpredictable factors that affect your health. Having some kind of practice like meditation or yoga can take away self-blame and give you the opportunity to be more self-compassionate.”—Crystal Johnson, registered clinical counsellor who lives with type 1 diabetes
(This article appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Spring 2019)
Tips for getting started with meditation
Here are four ways that may help you to enjoy a more peaceful mind.
1 Try an app: Download one of the popular paid meditation apps on your phone or tablet, such as Headspace, Calm, or 10% Happier. Or try Insight Timer, which offers more than 4,500 free meditation sessions.
2 Stick with it: The more regularly you meditate, the more benefits you will see. A short five- or 10-minute meditation every day is better than meditating every once in a while.
3 Keep an open mind: “I often work with people who would benefit from meditation but they don’t get excited about it because they just don’t see themselves as the type of person who would meditate. I always encourage patients to be open to at least giving it a shot,” says psychologist Michael Coons.
4 Find small ways to be in the moment: If meditation is not your thing, look for other ways to help you be in the moment—take the time to enjoy each mouthful when you are eating; notice the details of your surroundings when you are out for a walk; or take a moment to consider the things you are grateful for before you go to sleep.
Ready to be more mindful?
Here are four meditation practices you can try.
1 Body scan or progressive relaxation: In this practice, you consider each part of the body, paying special attention to the way each area feels. Try this 30-minute body scan from mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn.
2 Self-compassion: While many people can show compassion to others, they sometimes have a hard time being compassionate with themselves. This worksheet guides you through some steps that will help you show greater kindness to yourself.
3 Breath awareness: This simply involves breathing slowly and deeply, paying attention to the rise and fall of your breath and ignoring all other thoughts. Try this 10-minute breath meditation from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.
4 Mantra: Repeating a positive statement (also known as an affirmation or mantra) can help produce feelings of relaxation by focusing your mind and helping you block out distractions as you meditate. Here is a step-by-step guide from Yoga Journal.
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