A diagnosis of diabetes changes everything. It frequently changes a person’s perception of himself and of his health. The demands of diabetes care can also change a person’s daily routine. A diabetes diagnosis is almost always accompanied by suggestions from health-care providers for lifestyle changes. And it may also be accompanied by a desire on the part of the person with diabetes to make such lifestyle or other changes in his life.
But change, even when desired, can be stressful. Sometimes it’s not clear how or even what to change to achieve goals such as weight loss, blood glucose control, or feeling less anxiety about having diabetes. This is where mindfulness—the act of being aware and paying attention to the current moment—can help. Mindfulness enables a person to tune in to how he feels physically and emotionally at any moment, and that information can guide his response to a given situation. Perhaps most important, it allows him to change his response from his habitual, automatic reaction to a response he chooses. These skills can be useful in all realms of life and may be of particular use when it comes to eating behaviors.
While “paying attention” may sound simple, in fact it can be challenging to do in daily life. One reason it’s so difficult is that although the brain has a huge capacity to notice and observe, it is also bombarded with a constant flow of stimulation and information.
To better understand the forces competing for the mind’s attention, it is helpful to consider three categories of awareness: sensory experience, knowledge, and emotional states.
SENSORY EXPERIENCE consists predominantly of smells, sounds, colors, and tastes. It also includes noticing any physical feelings, such as a sense of wellness, strength, or fatigue, or symptoms of high or low blood glucose levels, such as trembling, sweating, or blurry vision.
KNOWLEDGE is the ability to recall facts and learn new concepts. For example, a person may have learned that there is carbohydrate in bread. When he applies this knowledge to create a meal, then notes his experience, this information can be transformed into wisdom, or understanding gained through direct experience. Each person has a unique body of accumulated wisdom that is an important aspect of that person’s mental awareness.
EMOTIONAL STATES consist of feelings such as joy, contentment, anger, or anxiety. Typically, feelings change over the course of an experience.
Because these three primary sources of information are always “in play,” the brain is constantly engaged. So while there are plenty of internal and external stimuli to be aware of, sorting out which are important and which are not can be very difficult.
Most people cope with “information overload” by focusing on any one thing for only a moment. Over time, people become accustomed to varying levels of environmental or mental distraction. This perpetual shifting of focus becomes a way to “look” at something but never really “see” it.
Imagine you are out for dinner, eating a salad, and enjoying the flavors and textures in your mouth. Suddenly, something—the odor of another diner’s entrée, perhaps, or your dining companion’s conversation—causes your mind to leave the salad and focus on something else. Although you continue eating your salad, your experience of eating it has changed: You are now only barely aware of how it tastes, whether or not you’re enjoying it, and how full you are.
According to psychologist Ronna Kabatznick, Ph.D., author of The Zen of Eating: Ancient Answers to Modern Weight Problems, “The experience of anticipating the future or reliving the past can cause a person to distance himself from the direct experience, which leaves most of us lost in the world of thought while we do our most basic tasks: eating, walking, washing the dishes—whatever it is, we are not present.” In fact, says Kabatznick, “It is rare for us to be conscious of whatever is happening in our lives.”