If you live with a non-stop disease like diabetes that requires constant health-related choices and effort, the habits of your thinking can have a big impact.
In fact, many argue that your thoughts are the first and most important factor in determining whether you struggle or thrive as a person with diabetes.
“Your thoughts guide your behavior,” explains Alexis Elliott, LCSW, LISW-CP, CDE, a health coach with specialties in diabetes, eating disorders, and nutrition.
“We know that managing your health is based on behavior — which means that if you’re thinking negatively, you’re probably going to struggle with following through on healthy behaviors and healthy choices.”
In psychology speak, Elliott says the acronym “ANTS” is important to identify.
Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS)
“There’s never just one ant at a picnic,” says Elliott, “and negative thoughts are the same way.
It’s important to recognize that negative thoughts can become a runaway train, and you walk around with this cloud over your head and you project it on every part of your health.”
Habitual negative thinking could be something you’re doing constantly and yet you’re unaware of it because you’ve convinced yourself of the many negative things you keep thinking.
“I’m never gonna lose weight” versus “I can keep trying, making gradual progress bit by bit.”
One thought comes to a dead-end. The other challenges you to keep trying, keep learning, keep experimenting and evolving and starting over when things don’t go perfectly.
The same is true when it comes to diabetes management.
“I’ll never get my A1c down” vs. “Let me just try one new thing that might improve my A1c.”
This self-defeating, glass-half-full negative thinking is probably present in nearly every part of your life, not just your health.
“It casts a shadow over everything you look at it,” says Elliott.
But it’s not permanent, it’s just a habit, like everything else. And in some instances, it’s realistic.
“It’s normal as humans to think negatively sometimes,” explains Elliott. “It’s part of our survival — we have to think about the worst-case scenario for our physical safety or running out of food!”
But day-to-day negative thinking affects every choice and can quickly become your dominant way of thinking,” says Elliott.
That path of negative thinking becomes the easiest, most familiar path. The one you instinctively reach for every time you’re challenged with a behavior choice. It becomes your shortcut.
Creating new thinking habits is like creating a new trail in the woods
Just like walking in the woods where there is no trail, the more you walk that route, the more you create a visible path. Over time, it becomes easier to choose and easier to follow.
But creating a new thinking habit isn’t easy at first, because — well — there’s no trail to follow yet.
Here are a few tips Elliott suggests for getting started.
Acknowledge your current thinking habits
How often do you tell yourself, “Diabetes sucks, and I suck at managing it”?
How often do you tell yourself that you’ll never succeed in losing weight or quitting smoking or exercising more often?
If you can’t start with honesty about your own habits, you’ve got nowhere to go. Hold-up a mirror and take a closer look at you. Take responsibility for the thoughts you keep putting in your own head, and for indulging them every time they knock on your door instead of turning them away and replacing them with something more positive.
So much of your thinking comes down to choosing which thoughts you let in. Which thoughts you indulge and embrace.
Question if your negative thinking habit is even true
Do you really “suck at managing diabetes” or is diabetes difficult for everyone and you just happen to beat yourself up more often for imperfect blood sugar levels?
The more you beat yourself up, the less encouraged you feel for the next zillion diabetes-related choices you have to make that day. A self-sabotaging pattern.
Check your environment
Friends, family, Instagram — these are just a few of the environmental factors that can have a huge impact on how you think.
- Do you have a mother who always tries to knock you down a peg when you’re feeling good?
- Do you have friends who embrace negativity and self-pity?
- Do you have friends who try to sabotage your personal success in eating less sugar or drinking less alcohol?
- Does looking at certain Instagram profiles (or social media in general) trigger insecurity and negativity for you?
Take a good honest look at places in your life that heavily influence how you think. Surrounding yourself with positive people will inevitably change how you see your own world!
Create positivity around you
If you’re struggling to remember positive thoughts and ideas, put them right in front of you in writing so they’re easy to grab when you need them!
- Maybe it’s inspiring quotes on index cards taped to your fridge or a playlist that makes you feel energetic and alive.
- Put them in your car, at your desk, in your diabetes kit, on the inside of your arm (with a marker, of course).
Create things that encourage positivity and help you train your brain!
Start a gratitude journal
It sounds overly simple, but simply writing down one thing every day that you are grateful for can really remind your brain that you have many good things in your life. It can help you realize the more stressful parts of life are manageable, too.
Simply acknowledging your good fortune to have a roof over your head and plenty of water to drink can lift your brain from that negative place with too little light.
Take more responsibility for what you feed your brain
If you’re eating crappy, processed junk every day, it’s no wonder your brain comes up with crappy, junky thoughts, too.
What you feed your body — and how often you exercise to give that same body more energy and healthy blood flow — absolutely impacts how you think and how you feel about yourself and your life.
This is so simple and yet so often ignored. But you don’t have to eat perfectly or exercise every day! Choose one part of the day to start making healthier choices and choose a few days next week that you’ll make sure to exercise for 20 minutes.
Start small. Acknowledge those small steps. Give your body good things so it can produce more good thoughts.