When life is chaotic, diabetes management is still mission-critical. However, for those of us navigating a chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes during personal upheaval and/or high levels of stress, it can be exceedingly hard to maintain appropriate levels of self-care.
Life events that often rank as the most stressful may include the following, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2017 report, “Stress in America: The State of our Nation”:
- The future of our nation
- Current political climate
- Violence and crime
And anyone who has ever taken the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory also knows that major life events, such as the death of a spouse or partner (or child), separation or divorce from a partner, job instability, starting a new job or new line of work, moving into a new home, and retirement, among many other circumstances, can cause many of us to feel stressed or in the midst of personal or professional turmoil.
Yet, during these wild moments of our lives, it is critically important to take care of ourselves and our stress levels, especially when we feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and overextended. As Harvard Medical School reminds us, stress and illness are related, and the more we can better take care of our stress, the better our management of diabetes:
Yet many well-respected studies link stress to a variety of ailments, including heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Depression and anxiety, which afflict millions of Americans, can be caused or exacerbated by stress. Stress also triggers flare-ups of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and gastrointestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
So, how do we “keep calm and carry on” while managing type 2 diabetes?
1. Even when life is chaotic, take a deep breath and slow down.
Recent research suggests nurturing positive relationships with friends and family, incorporating daily walks, utilizing talk therapy, and ensuring we treat our health and wellness as our Number 1 priority are all essential when weathering tough times. While it is so very easy to get caught up, rightfully so, in the hardship within our lives, it is so helpful to take stock of what we can control or better structure to make self-care and diabetes management easier, from enlisting friends and family to help with preparing healthy meals and going for after-dinner walks to regularly working with a therapist or counselor to problem-solve or to determine better coping strategies for handling or minimizing existing stressors. While we cannot control what life throws us in many instances, we can determine our response to hard or troubling times. A growth mindset and our ability to ask for help from trusted or professional sources is what often guides us through the storm.
2. Survey says…
In the same APA 2017 report on Americans’ top five stressors, many people share that they alleviate mental anguish and frustration by doing one or more of the following activities:
- Listening to music (47 percent)
- Exercising or walking (46 percent)
- Praying (29 percent)
- Practicing meditation or yoga (12 percent)
In this same study, more than half of Americans (53 percent) take part in exercise or some form of physical activity to cope with stress. So, if you think adding exercise to an already burdensome load is the last thing you have time for, think again. Getting a good sweat on might allow you to let go, even for an hour, all of your burdens long enough to see more clearly where your priorities belong, least of which includes safeguarding your health as a person with diabetes.
3. Got a minute? Try mini-relaxation techniques in 3 minutes or less!
While it would be wonderful if we could all receive routine spa treatments and massages (and trust me, massage is a proven bodywork therapy for helping improve glucose control and reducing stress), let’s be real: most of us barely have the resources (time, money, childcare, and more) to book an hour-long massage regularly.
So, focus instead on what you do have: A minute before soccer practice, three minutes to yourself while waiting to pick up the kids or groceries or before you go to work. Try one of the following mini-relaxation techniques from the Harvard Medical School to live more fully and less stressed in the time we have now:
- When you’ve got 1 minute: Place your hand just beneath your navel so you can feel the gentle rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. Breathe in slowly. Pause for a count of three. Breathe out. Pause for a count of three. Continue to breathe deeply for one minute, pausing for a count of three after each inhalation and exhalation.
- When you’ve got 2 minutes: Count down slowly from 10 to zero. With each number, take one complete breath, inhaling and exhaling. For example, breathe in deeply saying “10” to yourself. Breathe out slowly. On your next breath, say “nine,” and so on. If you feel lightheaded, count down more slowly to space your breaths further apart. When you reach zero, you should feel more relaxed. If not, go through the exercise again.
- When you’ve got 3 minutes: While sitting down, take a break from whatever you’re doing and check your body for tension. Relax your facial muscles and allow your jaw to fall open slightly. Let your shoulders drop. Let your arms fall to your sides. Allow your hands to loosen so that there are spaces between your fingers. Uncross your legs or ankles. Feel your thighs sink into your chair, letting your legs fall comfortably apart. Feel your shins and calves become heavier and your feet grow roots into the floor. Now breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly. Each time you breathe out, try to relax even more.
4. Lastly, write the stress away.
Okay, let’s be clear: Expressive writing is not a cure-all, but study after study has shown that expressive writing can help people with chronic diseases process their emotions and feel better. The act of thinking about an experience as well as releasing emotions onto the page allows many people to better organize their thoughts and make sense of turbulent times or trauma. Timing of when to write, however, matters. Writing in the midst of trauma or chaos is often less effective and may cause more pain, in fact. But, give yourself a month or two from the stressful event or series of events before writing about what you’ve survived or are going through more distantly. Such distance, however brief, can help you better regulate emotional pain and begin to articulate how and why you’re surviving and one day thriving through a difficult time period in your life.
Ultimately, keeping on and carrying on really depends on the care teams we build and foster and focusing on the things we can control during hard times. Knowing the difference between what you can change and what you cannot is a lifelong lesson for many of us. So, as you manage your health with the ups and downs of living life, be as gentle with yourself as you would with a good friend or child. Remind yourself that your care is important, too, and that you deserve the same time, energy, and patience you would give to a loved one as well.
One of the best ways to help recover from stressful times in our lives is to know you are not alone. Who or what did you turn to when the going got rough in your own life? What do you wish you could say to that person or activity now that you’re on the other side of stress (or perhaps still working through it with a fresh or different perspective)?
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