How Meditation and Mindfulness Can Help Manage Diabetes

As a diabetes educator and a person managing my own diabetes for many decades, I know intimately that diabetes is not just challenging once in a while — it’s challenging every day. But I have some good news.

Diabetes educators use a framework of “7 self-care behaviors” to guide people in managing diabetes. These seven behaviors are:

Healthy eating.

— Being active.

— Taking medications (as prescribed).

— Monitoring blood sugar.

— Problem solving.

— Reducing risk.

Healthy coping.

This list of “to do’s” is based on research that has shown that engaging in these specific healthy lifestyle behaviors will improve glycemic (blood sugar) management. Improved glycemic management reduces the risk for serious or life-threatening complications related to diabetes. That’s what each of us has (or should have) as a goal to live life in spite of diabetes and avoid complications.

[READ: Mediterranean Diet for People With Diabetes.]

Challenges of Diabetes Management

The list of self-care behaviors for diabetes management, however, can become overwhelming. Acting on these lifestyle behaviors isn’t just an occasional thing. These behaviors, from making healthy food choices to being consistently active to monitoring blood sugar levels frequently for feedback, occur all the time. And the list goes on.

Problem-solving is constant. Medications must be taken several times per day and at specific times, and reducing risk requires focusing on other linked conditions like high blood pressure. Two-thirds of people with diabetes, for example, also have high blood pressure.

Additionally, these responsibilities will continue throughout our lives. Healthy coping, or how we act to deal with the steady stress of constantly juggling these responsibilities, is important to making diabetes management easier to deal with.

Healthy coping — dealing with diabetes-related stress — is not just to improve our emotional well-being. Chronic stress can have serious physical consequences as well, like above-target blood sugar, generally related to elevated levels of the “fight or flight” stress hormone called cortisol.

[Read: Ways Stress Makes You Gain Weight.]

Managing Diabetes-Related Stress

Recently, I attended a presentation about meditation and mindfulness put together by certified health and wellness coach Brooke Cassoff, Peter Friedfeld and Sam Tullman (who has a master’s in public health). They, along with Brianna Schiavonni (a licensed clinical social worker), are co-founders of the Diabetes Sangha group. “Sangha” is a Sanskrit word for community, specifically “a community that comes together with a positive, liberative intention” as the Sangha website states.

Friedfeld describes this group as a safe space to explore meditation practices and teachings in a way that’s oriented toward living with diabetes. The co-founders are committed to expanding the reach of these practices in a way that is free and easily accessible.

Currently, all of the facilitators of Diabetes Sangha have Type 1 diabetes, and most of their experience is working with people impacted by T1D in some way. People with Type 2 diabetes would also benefit from these kinds of practices and fellowship and can certainly join in on any of the live virtual events.

The presenters from Diabetes Sangha offered examples of how meditation and mindfulness can positively impact our diabetes management. You may be thinking, “meditation is not for me,” but meditation may not be what you have imagined. It comes in many forms, all aiming at a state of calmness and rest.

[READ: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation]

Mindfulness and Meditation for Diabetes Management

Calmness and rest sound fantastic, but what about diabetes? Beyond the sometimes-overwhelming responsibilities for self-care, people managing diabetes commonly deal with routine physical discomfort (e.g., finger “sticks” or placing a continuous glucose monitor or insulin pump on their body), the burdens of lifestyle restrictions, social stigma and isolation, impossible expectations about blood glucose control, feeling unsafe in our own bodies (as an effect of above or below target blood sugar targets) and self-judgment for failing to be perfect.

Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness and meditation can reduce blood pressure, decrease insulin resistance, and significantly reduce rates of heart disease. People with diabetes who practice meditation can expect to see benefits in reduced diabetes distress, anxiety and depression, improved eating patterns, being more ‘in touch’ with sensations (above and below target blood sugar), feeling more supported/connected, improved HbA1C (glycemic management), improved sleep and improved quality of life and psychological well-being.

All of these negative physical and emotional effects of chronic stress respond positively to one solution — meditation and mindfulness. Anecdotally and in studies, people diagnosed with diabetes have seen significant reduction in their blood sugar readings after participation in meditation over a six month period of time and even after just one session.

Why Try Mindfulness and Meditation?

Whether you have been diagnosed with Type 1, Type 2 or pre-diabetes, this experience from Tullman will resonate with you.

He said that “as a result of a committed meditation practice, at some point it really sunk in more deeply that diabetes wasn’t my fault, and that it was normal for things to go awry on a regular basis — there was nothing wrong with me. I’ve never been the same since — nor, unsurprisingly, have my A1Cs, which went from “good,” to “excellent,” essentially as good as they could be, because all of a sudden, I was ready to face the reality of life with diabetes with kindness and care for myself. That very day I began to realize what an opportunity meditation presents for all of us living with T1D, who are so often mired in struggle and self-judgment about that struggle — that was when I knew I had to be sharing these amazing practices with the community, and one of the seeds of DiabetesSangha began to sprout.”

While I can’t claim expertise in the practice of meditation yet, I am a top-level authority on the potential anxieties and frustrations of diabetes management, and I certainly understand the physical consequences of chronic stress on long-term health.

Having spoken privately with Friedfeld and reviewed feedback from fellow people with diabetes (PWD) about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, I find myself checking lots of boxes and ringing lots of bells. And as a diabetes educator, I am particularly impressed with the way meditation and mindfulness allow PWDs to persist in practicing the seven self-care behaviors with less self-judgment.

How to Get Started

You can start with no-cost meditation and mindfulness practices that can be implemented anywhere, anytime. You can join in a free meditation group at Diabetes Sangha.com, participate in yoga (at home with an app to guide you), dance, or use breathwork. Breathwork involves focusing on your inhales and exhales as it leads your breathing as a calming measure. This can be done while sitting, lying, or walking — anytime, anywhere. I’m definitely going to give it a try, and I’m making that same recommendation to you.

More from U.S. News

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How Meditation and Mindfulness Can Help Manage Diabetes originally appeared on usnews.com

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