Diabetes distress: Coping with the emotional toll of diabetes


by Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN

Feb 4, 2021

In this day and age, most people are familiar with diabetes. Diabetes is an autoimmune condition that is related to either the dysfunction of insulin or insulin resistance (Type 2) or a complete lack of insulin production (Type 1). What most people don’t think about with diabetes is the extreme mental and physical toll the disease itself often takes on those living with this diagnosis. 

Diabetics have many unique responsibilities and worries. If you are living with diabetes, you can probably identify with many of the following emotions and stress factors:

  • 24/7 management of blood sugar and decisions surrounding this 
  • Constant thoughts surrounding food 
  • Black and white thinking or high expectations with diabetes care
  • Misinformation and assumptions perpetuated by media and culture 
  • Fear of death or extreme symptoms
  • Fear of long-term complications of the disease
  • Cost of medication, appointments and equipment
  • Guilt and shame about having diabetes
  • Weight stigma and diabetes stigma
  • Loneliness or lack of support 

All of this on top of the normal day-to-day responsibilities, activities and life events we all deal with. For many people, struggling to cope with this emotional stress can lead to what is referred to as diabetes distress.

Ways to avoid diabetes distress

Diabetes distress is when one experiences a significant mental and emotional burden from the management of their diabetes. This condition encompasses the struggles of self-management, unsupportive social structures, emotional reaction to diagnosis and threat of complications. Diabetes distress can present with symptoms of anger, denial, frustration and loneliness.

If distress continues over time, it can eventually lead to diabetic burnout or a state of disbelief, detachment, frustration and/or submission to diabetes. Usually this is characterized by ignoring, forgetting or avoiding blood sugar checks, missing appointments and not taking medication, amongst other things. 

Both diabetes distress and diabetes burnout can be dangerous because they can lead to severe complications from lack of management as well as increased risk of mental health distress. If you find diabetes impacting your life in this way, let me say this to you: Your feelings concerning diabetes are 100% valid, and there is a way to relieve them. Let’s dive into some ways you can face these emotions, cope with them and live your life with diabetes. 

Feel and address your feelings 

Always avoiding or distracting yourself from your emotions and feelings can be problematic in the long term. There are many ways you can process your thoughts and feelings — try therapy, journaling, meditation or a new hobby. Know that distraction and avoidance techniques are helpful in the short term, but never dealing with the problem won’t make it go away.

Ask for help

Understanding that you are not alone in dealing with your diabetes is key to dissolving some of the feelings of distress. There is no shame in needing help with any aspect of your care. Feel free to talk to someone you trust about your concerns, whether it be someone on your treatment team, your best friend or your mom. Having someone listen to your concerns will help you feel better and help you figure out the next step in how to take better care of your needs. Make sure you talk with your provider about receiving a mental health screening annually.

Find a support group

Finding people who understand your feelings and struggles can help avoid feelings of loneliness or lack of support. There are tons of diabetes support groups out there both in person and online where you can express your concerns to a group that has most likely experienced something similar.

This could also mean finding a supportive group of friends and family you can turn to in times of distress. Regardless of who you decide to surround yourself with, make sure it is people who care about you and people who you trust. 

Do you feel like you need help managing your diabetes? You don’t have to do it alone. Get diabetes support today

About the Author

Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian and wellness coordinator in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness department.

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