Zen and the Art of Type 1

shutterstock_142676710_calm_300pxThe latest buzzword in self-help these days is mindfulness. Defined as paying attention to one’s thoughts and state of mind in a non-judgmental way, mindfulness is being touted as the new pathway to better health. While it may be trendy, I have found mindfulness helps me cope with the stress of having Type 1 diabetes.

I am intimately familiar with the anxiety of living with a chronic illness, as I’ve had Type 1 for over 40 years. Fear of complications is woven into the daily juggling act of blood sugar testing, insulin dosing, carb counting, and pump management. At least one study has indicated that some 40% of people with diabetes report elevated symptoms of anxiety. From my anecdotal experience, I find that number low; every person I have met who has Type 1 worries about the disease.

Worry creates a vicious cycle. Our blood sugar rises when we are stressed or anxious, which in turn causes adrenaline and other hormones to be released into the bloodstream. Those hormones can cause cortisol, a steroid hormone, to be secreted from the adrenal gland. Cortisol makes fat and muscle cells resistant to insulin. Like a never-ending staircase in an Escher illustration, being stressed about high blood sugar causes stress. Which can make your blood sugar rise. Which can stress you out.

After years of Buddhist practice, I came to realize that my meditation practice was affected by my diabetes, and that my diabetes was affected by my Buddhist practice. Through a referral, I discovered a counselor and health coach with a focus on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn to help people with chronic conditions live better.

My therapist helped me come to the realization that while I cannot make diabetes go away, I can change how I deal with it. Over time, I’ve found that being mindful has become as essential to me as checking my blood sugar.

What does mindfulness look like? Mindfulness means breathing deeply when anxiety is triggered. It means taking time to be grateful for what is working right instead of focusing only on what is going wrong. For me, it means not reacting to stress stimuli, such as a high blood glucose level, or an A1C that is not what I was hoping for, or an unskillful comment from someone about Type 1. It means looking at what is actually in the moment and not making a judgement.

Judgements are easy to make, but useful to forgo. Sometimes a number is just a number. It doesn’t mean that I’m terrible at managing my Type 1; it probably only means that I miscalculated carbs, and that I’m not perfect. Being non-judgemental doesn’t mean I don’t care, it just means that I give myself the power to make mistakes, learn from them, and be empowered to do better next time.

If you are interested in trying mindfulness, I suggest finding a counselor or therapist who is familiar with MBSR. If you are more of a do-it-yourselfer, there are many excellent books on mindfulness including Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life and Mindfulness for Beginners.

It is important to remember that mindfulness, like Type 1, is a journey, one that can be done with each breath and each moment. You can try it right now, and practice it for a lifetime. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me.

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