When I was younger, my mother had a writing desk in the den. She was, and still is, an academic who spent many hours each day writing. Back in those days, the desk hosted an IBM electric typewriter. When I was about 8, the typewriter was finally retired, and replaced with the first Apple Macintosh (with a whopping 16 MB of memory, if I recall). Eventually that was replaced, too, by a series of progressively more powerful computers. But there was one item on that desk that never changed: a sign attached to the front that read, “I’m not enjoying this.” I loved that sign.
We live with a condition we don’t like every day of our lives. It can find myriad ways to interrupt our plans and knock us right out of the moment. It constantly demands our attention and likes to cause stress. It’s like that incredibly annoying kid you went to school with who just never stopped bothering everyone within earshot. The only saving grace was that you could leave school at 3 PM everyday and get some respite. Diabetes never takes a break, even on the weekends. And so it’s up to us to figure out a way to make peace with it.
This little phrase offers a blueprint for how to make peace with our irritating (and sometimes downright nasty) sidekick, by acknowledging how much we’re not enjoying him but not giving in to his antics. We acknowledge the dislike, anger, or frustration, but we don’t dwell in it or allow it to be the basis of our decision-making. That was the brilliant thing about my mother displaying that sign on her work desk; she wasn’t letting stress dictate her actions, but she wasn’t ignoring how she felt, either.
Fight, flight, or freeze
We have a hardwired fight, flight, or freeze instinct. It’s there to protect us when we’re in real physical danger, and it is very good at its job. If an angry bear is barreling toward you, you don’t want to sit down to write a pros and cons list about running from the bear. You either freeze and play dead or get the heck outta there. That’s your instinct kicking in. The body floods the bloodstream with hormones (chiefly adrenaline, a prime ingredient for stress), ratchets up the heart rate and blood pressure, and the brain looks for clear, concrete, black-and-white choices. In the days of the cavemen this instinct was the way to go. The problem comes when we apply it to something like diabetes.
In our minds, diabetes can look just like the bear, particularly when our control feels like it’s slipping. And this makes sense — poor control equates to complications in our minds. And so unstable blood glucose feels very much like a physical threat.
However, unlike the bear, which might kill us right now if we don’t react immediately, diabetes is not an imminent threat to our safety. It doesn’t call for an adrenaline-filled, quick reaction. In fact, insulin is a hormone — adding competing hormones like adrenaline limits the effectiveness of the insulin in our system. Freezing doesn’t help, either. When we freeze, we lose our ability to take action at all. If we stay frozen for long enough, we call it depression.
What we need is calm, clear, subtle thinking and a holistic view of the situation. When it comes to diabetes, we should be making a pros and cons list. The ultimate goal is to find a way to acknowledge how we feel, move through it, and return to the present moment. From here, we can move forward with a clear head and our actions will be based on our inner intelligence and wisdom, not our stress. What we need, then, is to become experts in the field of stress management.
“De-stressing” tool kit
OK, a little cheesy, but a worthwhile analogy. Stress is just a natural part of living with diabetes, and there’s really no way to change that. But regardless of what our blood glucose is doing, we always have the ability to manage our state of mind. Shakespeare may have said it best: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Stress is a product of our mind, not something created outside of ourselves. There is no bear out there; you ARE the bear. That’s great news, because if stress isn’t created by the world around us, then nothing has to change in order for stress to be resolved. The cause and the solution are internal. All we need are the right tools. When a car has engine problems, you use the appropriate tools to fix them. When your number is too high, you use insulin to correct it. When your emotional state is out of balance, you use emotional tools.
So what are some emotional tools? The answer is different for everyone. For me, meditation works wonders. So does playing music. Writing this column, in fact, is a de-stressing activity. Some people use a journal. For some, a 15-minute silent walk soothes their anxiety, anger, or sadness. Some use painting as their outlet, some use yoga.
You may need a 1-2 punch. I used to have a punching bag in my room. When I was really frustrated, I’d spend five minutes on the bag, and then write for a little while. The most important element is that you are able to move through your stress and return to the feeling of centered calm that is needed to effectively face diabetes. Moving through the anger, stress, and anxiety, and returning to the simple truth of the present moment can turn an overwhelming, frightening situation into something that is workable — not ideal, not perfect, but workable.
So take a moment, reflect, and think about what’s available in your tool kit. And share your ideas with us — you may just have that wrench that I’ve been searching for. And I might have your hammer.