Daniel Sher explains how meditation can improve the mental and physical well-being of people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
What comes to mind when you think about meditation? If you’re envisaging a Buddhist Monk poised in the lotus position, levitating just above the ground, you’re not alone. However, meditation is more than just gongs and incense.
In my clinical psychology practice for people with diabetes, meditation is one of the most effective and transformative tools that I use to help people learn to thrive with diabetes.
What is meditation?
Quite simply, it is a way of calming the mind through techniques, such as focused breathing and visualisation. There are many different types, including Mindfulness, Transcendental Meditation, Mantra Meditation and Progressive Muscular Relaxation.
Meditation has been practiced for centuries by people all over the world; and it often forms an important part of various ethnic and spiritual practices. However, in the context of health sciences, most people use meditation as a brain-training exercise for improving health, rather than a spiritual practice.
How can meditation help people with diabetes?
Meditation (Mindfulness in particular) is a skill which people with diabetes can use to build up their resilience toolbox. Research has shown, for example, that meditation can help people with diabetes to:
- blood glucose control;
- overall quality of life
- risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease
More generally, meditation is a really powerful tool for people with diabetes, as it can help them to manage the emotional aspects of this condition. For example, diabetes burnout is a situation in which we feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the demands of living with this condition.
Most people with diabetes experience burnout at least once, often more. Meditation can help us to recognise the signs of burnout. Beyond this, meditation gives us a tool to process and move through the feelings of overwhelming frustration that we often feel as a result of living with this condition. What else?
Meditation is a highly effective way of lowering stress. Why is this important for people with diabetes? For starters, stress hormones (such as cortisol) lead to higher blood-glucose levels. Through meditation, therefore, you help your body to lower blood glucose levels naturally. Furthermore, people who are good at managing their stress are also better at making healthy decisions in terms of their day-to-day lifestyle.
Meditation is also a really great way of helping people with diabetes to regulate their emotions. Why is this important? As with stress, uncomfortable emotions (such as fear, worry, anger, sadness or hopelessness) can raise blood glucose.
Uncontrolled emotional fluctuations can also lead to emotional binge-eating, substance use, avoidance of injections and other problematic behaviours. Furthermore, meditation is a great tool for helping people to move through denial, in order to truly accept their condition.
What about people with diabetes and a diagnosed psychiatric condition?
As people with diabetes, we are far more likely than most to have a diagnosed psychiatric condition, such as clinical depression (or Major Depressive Disorder), anxiety disorders, eating disorders and bipolar mood disorder. These disorders can be effectively treated through psychological therapy techniques which draw on meditation.
For example, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are both evidence-based approaches for treating mental illness, which blend Mindfulness with other psychotherapy techniques. A 2020 paper has also shown that Mindfulness-based therapy, in particular, is an effective way for people with diabetes to get better HbA1C levels and treat depression at the same time.
Your brain on meditation
Brain scan technology shows us that certain forms of meditation (including Mindfulness) can actually change our brains. We know, for example, that practicing Mindfulness can lead to changes in parts of the brain that control fear, panic and self-soothing responses. In this sense, the practice can help you ‘rewire’ your brain in a way that promotes health, calm and well-being. Another 2012 study found that practicing Mindfulness can help you grow your hippocampus (often referred to as the memory centre of the brain) thereby helping you to improve your thinking skills.
In recent times, rigorous scientific trials and sophisticated brain-scan technologies have shown that meditation can have real benefits for your brain and body. In particular, meditation is a powerful tool for people with diabetes who are looking to live a happier and fuller life. Best of all: meditation can be practiced by anyone, anywhere. In other words, it’s not only for mystics, monks and hippies.
Gainey, A., Himathongkam, T., Tanaka, H., & Suksom, D. (2016). Effects of Buddhist walking meditation on glycemic control and vascular function in patients with type 2 diabetes. Complementary therapies in medicine, 26, 92-97.
Greenberg, Jonathan, et al. “Reduced interference in working memory following mindfulness training is associated with increases in hippocampal volume.” Brain imaging and behavior 13.2 (2019): 366-376.
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research: neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.
Keyworth, C., Knopp, J., Roughley, K., Dickens, C., Bold, S., & Coventry, P. (2014). A mixed-methods pilot study of the acceptability and effectiveness of a brief meditation and mindfulness intervention for people with diabetes and coronary heart disease. Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 53-64.
Ni, Y., Ma, L., & Li, J. (2020). Effects of Mindfulness‐Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness‐Based Cognitive Therapy in People With Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta‐Analysis. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 52(4), 379-388.
Varghese, M. P., Balakrishnan, R., & Pailoor, S. (2018). Association between a guided meditation practice, sleep and psychological well-being in type 2 diabetes mellitus patients. Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, 15(4).
MEET THE EXPERT
Daniel Sher is a registered clinical psychologist who has lived with Type 1 diabetes for over 28 years. He practices from Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town where he works with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes to help them thrive. Visit www.danielshertherapy.com
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