This is the second in The DX series on Mindfulness and Diabetes. See Using Mindfulness to Help Manage Diabetes, the first story in the series, and watch for the series conclusion soon.
To the casual observer, it must have looked pretty weird: me sitting in front of my computer with my eyes closed, hands resting lightly on my lap. I was wearing a headset, but I wasn’t speaking. Instead, a man on my computer screen smiled benevolently as he rang a set of finger cymbals, leaving their bright, clear tone hovering in the air. As the cymbals’ gentle chime faded away, I settled into the exercise we were supposed to practice, directing all of our attention toward our breathing as we inhaled, deeply and slowly, three times.
Despite the fact that the exercise was less than thirty seconds long, I made it through only a half a breath before my mind scurried away. What part of my breath was I supposed to be focusing on? Why did my head feel stuffy? Was it because my blood sugar was high? Or was it too low? What if it was high now, but went low while I slept? Before I knew it, my mind had jumped six hours into the future, preparing for – and feeling guilty about – a blood sugar reaction that I hadn’t yet experienced.
This was the first session of an eight-week mindfulness-based diabetes management course held through emindful.com. Led by Steve Alper, L.C.S.W. and diabetes coach and counselor Heather Nielsen, M.A., with primary care physician Jeff Horacek, M.D. as advisor, this pilot diabetes program was based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. Conveniently, its meetings, each an hour and a half, take place entirely online.
Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is considered the American father of mindfulness meditation – he taught the first version of mindfulness-based stress reduction in 1979. Known as MBSR, it’s now the largest and oldest meditation-based clinical program in the world; it’s also the most scientifically studied form of meditation, thanks in part to the consistency of its eight-week curriculum.
I first looked into MBSR while doing research for an article about meditation, and had been intrigued by what it might offer people with diabetes. After all, life with diabetes is nothing if not stressful, full of doctors’ appointments, meal planning, and careful and constant attention to blood glucose levels. Considering that stress itself can cause insulin resistance, a program that’s been scientifically proven to reduce stress seemed like it would be a natural fit. So I was intrigued when Alper, who has taught standard MBSR for years, told me that he and his colleagues were planning to launch a diabetes self-management course online.
As you may have already picked up, the key word here is “mindfulness.” It’s a slippery term to define, but it’s basically about choosing to be fully present in every moment without dwelling in the future or the past, and not beating yourself up when you inevitably become distracted.
Achieving mindfulness takes training, and MBSR’s main tool is a secularized form of Buddhist meditation called “mindfulness meditation.” The first mindfulness meditation practice usually involves spending a few minutes simply focusing your breath. Eventually you move on to other exercises like the “body scan,” in which you mentally work your way through your body noticing its sensations. The point of all the exercises is to help you “be here now” by encouraging you to notice thoughts, sensations, and emotions as they unfold, and not to judge yourself for having them. Trust me, it’s harder than it sounds!
The connections between mindfulness and diabetes might not seem obvious, but as I quickly discovered, there are a lot of them – diabetes provides an endless stream of emotions and physical sensations with which to practice, and mindfulness contains countless tools that can soothe life with the disease. For me, the most useful of these tools has been the ability to use mindfulness to help me switch out of autopilot.
Let’s say, for example, that I’m surprised by an unexpected high blood sugar. Normally, I’d automatically become angry and frustrated with myself, a reaction that, is unpleasant and unproductive. But practicing mindfulness has taught me to recognize signs of my stress reaction before it becomes full-blown – my jaw clenches, I let out an exasperated sigh, and I feel frustration begin to swell. By recognizing that this is happening, I’m able (sometimes!) to step back and redirect my response, focusing on self-compassion rather than self-anger. After all, whatever caused the high blood glucose reading is in the past. Rather than beat myself up for it, it’s better to pause, take a deep breath, and figure out a kinder and gentle way of dealing with my emotional response to the number on the glucometer’s screen.
Next: In our series conclusion, the author discusses the results of her experiment with MBDM.
To find out more about Mindfulness-Based Diabetes Management Courses, visit emindful.com.
Catherine Price is a freelance journalist and type 1 diabetic who has written for The New York Times, Slate, Popular Science, and O Magazine, among others. She blogs about diabetes at asweetlife.org. Catherine is currently working on a book about the history and science of vitamins, to be published by the Penguin Press and is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience