- A more holistic approach to the treatment of chronic conditions is needed; one that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of conditions such as diabetes.
- The physical symptoms of diabetes leads to stress, which in turn affects sugar levels, so the physical and psychological aspects become a vicious cycle, each affecting the other in detrimental ways.
- Psychologists can help diabetes patients deal with the stress, depression and anxiety that often accompanies the condition, as well as encouraging positive behaviours that lead to a more healthy lifestyle.
Too often, the psychological aspect of living with chronic conditions like diabetes is ignored, as doctors focus solely on treating the physical aspects with medications. But a holistic approach is needed to address the emotional effects of diabetes, and other such conditions.
The emotional effects of diabetes: Mood swings, stress and the challenge of lifestyle changes
The physical aspects of diabetes can affect the psychological, while the psychological in turn affects the physical.
For example, the sugar levels in a diabetes patient can affect their emotions. Low levels of blood sugar contribute to:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood swings, and even personality changes
While high blood sugar levels may contribute to:
- Difficulty thinking clearly.
Then there’s the psychological aspects of diabetes, meaning the stress that comes with it. Doctors refer to this condition as Diabetes Distress (DD), with symptoms similar to those of depression and anxiety.
The lifestyle challenges of managing diabetes, such as dietary changes, can also cause stress, as can the need to keep up with medication schedules.
All this stress can in turn affect blood sugar levels. So the physical and psychological aspects can become a vicious cycle, each affecting the other in detrimental ways.
Managing the psychological aspects of diabetes
If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, you may be wondering how mental health treatment would help you with what is clearly a physical condition.
But people frequently underestimate the difference that mental health treatment can make; and an increasing number of doctors are recommending it as a complement to medication.
- The most obvious way mental health treatment helps is by treating the depression and anxiety that often accompanies the condition. Techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness can help deal with recurring negative thought patterns one may be having about their condition and its ramifications.
- Psychologists can help patients develop the self-discipline that will make it easier to pursue a healthy lifestyle, such as dietary changes and maintaining regular exercise.
- They provide a space for the client to air their insecurities and frustrations regarding the condition, and their fears about how it will affect their work or family life. Psychologists can help diabetes patients change their way of thinking about these issues, thereby diminishing the anxiety and stress that comes with these negative thought patterns.
Psychologists can work with patients in private practice or in a clinical setting. But the biggest obstacle is recognising the need for their services. Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD, a former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), acknowledges that “there aren’t enough psychologists involved in preventing and treating diabetes”.
But things may be changing, as more doctors see the advantage of referring patients for psychological treatment.
As the South African Depression and Anxiety Group says: “Many people do not like the idea that they may have a psychiatric disorder, and find it easier to attribute everything to physical problems. However, good diabetic management is dependent on the development of self-knowledge. Many of the things that other people’s bodies do automatically, diabetics must do consciously, like closer monitoring of blood glucose, but also emotional state.”
Addressing mental health can improve longevity for diabetes patients
According to SADAG, “treatment for depression can improve a patient’s well-being and ability to manage diabetes, thus improving the quality of their lives”. Addressing mental health, dealing with depression and anxiety, and helping diabetes patients improve their lifestyle, plays almost as important a role as managing medications.
It shows how psychology and counselling can play a vital role in dealing with chronic conditions, and the overlap between the mental health profession and primary care. If you’re interested in learning more about this, you can study psychology and counselling courses at SACAP, where an array of part-time, full-time and distance learning options are available. For more information, enquire now.