The Temptation to Overreact to Blood Sugar

Diabetes is an often maddening disease. Even if your control is generally very good, there are always those days when your body just doesn’t respond the way you expect it to. The reasons are many — you might be fighting off a bug without realizing it, you might be physically exhausted, or you might be facing a very stressful situation. I’ve noticed that I tend to have 3- to 4-day stretches spaced out about every two months when my system just gets a little “wonky,” as I call it. Sometimes there seems to be a possible cause, like a bug going around that is probably engaging my immune system (whether or not I eventually GET said bug, the immune system fight messes with the insulin’s work). Other times, it seems to just be a mysterious phase that comes and goes with little explanation.

I actually happen to be in one of those wonderful phases as I write this. I’ve upped my insulin to the “when-I’m-sick” levels, and I’m trying to eat a little less than usual to avoid spikes, but still my numbers aren’t in the rhythm I’m generally accustomed to. I know that they’ll settle back down, but I’m still faced with a strong temptation that is probably familiar to most people who live with this condition — that is, the temptation to overreact.

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It can feel very personal when blood sugars don’t properly respond to our interventions. For me, I start to feel like diabetes is not an internal condition that is a part of my own body, but some foreign entity that is not only attacking me, but fighting dirty. And it makes me want to “bring down the hammer,” so to speak. “Yeah, not enough insulin for you? Well, what if I DOUBLE it? Huh?!? Take THAT!!” I think to myself. And the end “goal” of such an action is to see blood sugar take a dive DOWN to satisfy that emotional desire to “fight” the stubbornly high numbers you’re so mad at!

Of course, I don’t have to explain why this isn’t a good idea. The last thing we should really do when our body is under stress is throw it into a yo-yoing cycle of hyper- and hypoglycemic peaks and valleys. We’re not satisfying any functional need by overreacting; in fact we’re working against our physical needs. But there is a genuine need being served here, just not with a particularly healthy coping skill: the need to vent anger over a frustrating experience.

Our question becomes this: How can we vent that anger without hurting ourselves in the process? Simply ignoring anger is never a particularly great response — suppressing it doesn’t make it “go away.” It usually makes it stronger, in fact. It builds up, and like steam inside too small a space, it eventually HAS TO go somewhere. That’s what psychologists mean when they talk about built-up anger “coming out sideways.” The built-up resentment finds its way out not at an appropriate time, but at an opportune time, which might mean it gets thrown in the face of someone who can’t defend himself against our tirade, or against that unfortunate person who makes an innocent comment that rekindles our long-buried feelings.

Overreacting is really the flip side of suppressing. And while it might FEEL like we’re processing something, we’re not. We suppress so that we don’t have to face the feelings of fear that almost always underlie anger. And we overreact for the same reason — so that we can “blow up” with anger rather than face the fear or sadness underneath it. I’ve always felt that anger is more a “mask” for deeper feelings of fear and hurt than it is a genuine emotion in its own right. And unfortunately, it’s also the “quickest” feeling we have. There was a study that actually showed this. I don’t recall the exact times or how they measured it, but the result of a clinical study was this: Anger is the fastest emotional response, love was somewhere in the middle, and compassion was the slowest. And the implication was this: Higher-level emotions must be entered into with patience and a willingness to “sit through” those quick-rising but ultimately destructive feelings that flash upon us with such immediacy.

And so the ultimate answer, the one that I have taken years to come to and consistently implement in my own “wonky” spells, is this: Separate your actions from your feelings, and deal with them both on their own terms. In other words, take the action you KNOW is the appropriate response medically. And after that, face your feelings. I had a punching bag when I was teenager, and that was a good tool. I’d burn through the anger on the bag and then meditate. The meditation is where I faced those deeper fears with (hopefully) more clarity and centeredness, which is what we need for those feelings to truly be met. You could put any number of activities in the place of these two, though. As long as they 1) help you express the anger, and then 2) help you face the underlying fear, pain, or sadness from a centered place.

In the end, the toxic formula we want to avoid is this: responding to our emotional anger with our physical/medical response. That’s what overdoing the insulin is: it’s getting mad and expressing that anger through the wrong channel, responding to something on the emotional channel with an action on the medical channel. Ultimately it doesn’t help either one.

Brief activity breaks can significantly lower blood pressure levels in people with Type 2 diabetes, new research finds. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.