I talk a lot at health events and conferences about diabetes, to both patients and health care professionals. I talk about something that in my experience is seldom, if at all, heard in such venues: the idea that we can flourish living with diabetes. I tell people, “You can have a great life, not despite, but because, of diabetes.”
Call me crazy – some do – but I think living with diabetes may offer us some benefits. It has been that case for me. For instance, it’s given me more motivation to stay healthy, so I really watch what I eat and make sure I walk every day. It has also given me a greater appreciation for what I do have, like my amazing husband, wonderful friends, and loving family. And it’s given me this work I’ve always craved: helping others.
When I first started working in the field of diabetes a decade ago, I began by interviewing anyone I could find who had it. How were you diagnosed? How did you feel? What’s been easy? Difficult? Has diabetes affected your happiness?
After listening to more than 150 people, I learned that many, like me, used diabetes as a catalyst to lose the pounds they’d been struggling to lose for years. Some went out and bought a bike and were now riding every week. (If you are considering a new fitness routine or a weight loss plan, make sure you consult your health care team.) Many were teaching others in their community about diabetes, and loved doing that. Diabetes gave these people a greater sense of purpose, they pursued doing the things that were meaningful to them, and many said they were actually happier.
I discovered that those who are living full, happy, and healthy lives with diabetes seem to hold a certain mindset about it. One I call “flourishing.” Their outlook and self-talk is, “I am strong, I can do this.” They take the actions that help them live as healthfully as possible, and see that maybe they gained something with their diagnosis and didn’t just lose something. They are able to draw on their strengths when times are tough, look forward expectantly to good things, are hopeful, and are positively engaged with life. As a result, they experience a good deal of joy and contentment.
That doesn’t mean they or I don’t ever experience grief, loss, frustration, sadness, or burnout. We sometimes do. But seeing a relatively positive future, we are able to metaphorically “strap our boots back on” and keep going. Here’s the exciting news: flourishing is available to all of us.
Coping vs. Flourishing
The word I usually hear regarding how I’m doing with diabetes is “coping.” But to me, coping has a negative connotation. It implies that I am somehow deficient, “less than” normal and the best I can do is “come up” to normal. Sort of holding on by the skin of your teeth every moment.
I think the idea of “coping” with diabetes is rooted in our society. We are drawn to problems, to seeing “the fly in the ointment” rather than seeing what is going well.
All around me I see diabetes book titles with the words, “fight,” “battle,” “overcome diabetes.” I feel that living with diabetes this way might cause unhappiness.
Something I learned a long time ago is, “What you resist, persists.” When you “fight” your diabetes, you are not likely to win: your negative attention on it keeps it fighting you back.
I’m not saying living with a chronic illness is a reason to jump for joy. However, I am saying you might reap a lot more health and happiness if you find ways to begin using some “flourishing” behaviors. Here are some great ways to start:
7 Steps To Flourishing
1. Knowledge: Learn all you can about diabetes to manage it well.
2. Meaningfulness: Identify why it’s important to you to be healthy.
3. Look forward to move forward: Focus on, and move toward, what you want. (health, happiness, managing your condition well), rather than focusing on what you don’t want (complications).
4. Build on your successes: Acknowledge what you do well and take one tiny step to do a little better where you can.
5. Discover your strengths: Think about a challenge you overcame in the past and how you did that. Those are skills available to you anytime.
6. Indulge in relaxation techniques: Yoga, meditation, exercise, positive self-talk, whatever works for you.
7. Remain hopeful. Hope is forward-moving and laced with power.
Riva Greenberg is the author of Diabetes Do’s & How-To’s, writes a column on diabetes on The Huffington Post, and blogs on her website, DiabetesStories.com. Greenberg is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience