Applied Psychology

World Health Day: The Psychology Of Living With Diabetes

Apr 04, 2016
Living with Diabetes

Like in all chronic diseases, living with diabetes types 1 or 2 can be extremely challenging, and not just because of the diseases’ physical consequences. These blood-sugar disorders can also affect your emotions and, in turn, your emotions can wreak havoc on your diabetes management. Sadly, the mental-health impact of a disease such as diabetes is too often overlooked.

Diabetes and stress
While it’s unclear whether depression may develop because of the metabolic effects of diabetes on the brain, the stress inherent in managing one’s diabetes can most certainly cause mental-health challenges. People with a chronic disease such as diabetes often experience a loss in quality of life, and, as a result, grief is inevitable. While everyone experiences grief in their own way, denial, anger and sadness very often form part of the process. Feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame can also be experienced by people diagnosed with diabetes and many sufferers are affected by fear and anxiety; the daily anxiety about the changes that diabetes causes in life and the worry about the long-term complications of the disease can contribute significantly to feelings of depression.

Diabetes and depression
Any diabetic will tell you that extremes in blood-sugar levels can cause significant mood changes. There are days when you feel exasperated, frustrated, sad, in denial and physically exhausted. But, while depression has long been linked to diabetes, the jury is still out as to whether having diabetes somehow triggers depression. Research (published in the journal of Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics) in people with type-1 diabetes has found that long periods of high blood-sugar levels can in fact trigger the production of a hormone linked to the development of depression.

Diabetes and emotions
Although your blood-sugar levels can affect your emotions, your emotions can also affect your blood-sugar levels. In another study in the same journal, researchers tested the blood of of non-diabetic bungee jumpers, and found that the stress of the jump had caused a significant rise in blood-sugar concentration.

This is actually a normal byproduct of the body’s fight-or-flight system, which causes the liver to release more glucose into the bloodstream so as to ensure the cells have enough energy to deal with the threat. Unfortunately, people with diabetes don’t have sufficient insulin levels to process the glucose effectively, so the stress simply brings about an additional build-up of sugar in their bloodstreams.

The depression-like symptoms of diabetes
That said, poor control of diabetes can also cause symptoms that look like depression. During the day, high or low blood sugar may make you feel tired or anxious. Low blood-sugar levels can also lead to hunger and eating too much. If you have low blood sugar at night, it could disturb your sleep. If you have high blood sugar at night, you may get up often to urinate and then feel tired during the day.

Getting help
If diabetes is having a negative impact on your relationships or everyday life, it’s probably time to seek help. Counselling isn’t a magic pill, but it can be a safe, supportive place where you can work on whatever challenges you are facing. A therapist will try to help you develop the emotional skills to better tolerate the challenges of living with diabetes, problem-solve around difficult issues, and see how your thoughts are affecting your emotions and your behaviour. It may also help enormously to meet others with diabetes, either online or in person, because it’s such a great way to get support and feel less alone.

Understanding the link between physical and psychological health is fundamental to our wellbeing. If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to try out one of our many courses available at SACAP.

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