Why Mindfulness Works

I loved reading Diane Fennell’s piece last week on the positive effects of mindfulness practices for managing blood sugars. As someone with a (far too inconsistent) meditation practice, I have felt for years that my numbers seem to be more stable when I meditate. Her piece did a wonderful job of explaining the physiological mechanism for why mindfulness practice can be so helpful, as such a practice reduces stress and the accompanying stress hormones like cortisol that are designed by nature to elevate blood sugar in perceived dangerous situations (you need that extra energy if you’re going to outrun a tiger, and even though we intellectually feel a difference between life-and-death stress situations and emotional stress, our bodies do not — we’re responding to 21st century problems with a stress response system designed for the hunter-gatherer period of human evolution when outrunning tigers was a practical, daily skill).

Mindfulness doesn’t just work on a physiological level, however. After reading her piece, I got to thinking about how mindfulness practice plays itself out in the daily life of a Diabetian, and I thought I would share some of those thoughts with you today, and invite you to share your own observations in the comments. I would love to hear readers’ experiences, suggestions, and ideas on the subject.

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Positive feedback loop
A positive feedback loop is not a series of self-affirmations. The “positive” in this case simply refers to something being generative. The end result could be positive or negative. An example I found online for a positive feedback loop with a negative outcome was this:

1. Climate change raises temperatures.
2. People use more air conditioning to counteract rising temperatures.
3. The increased energy consumption causes an upsurge in carbon dioxide emissions, further affecting climate change.
4. And we’re back to number one.

So that’s a positive feedback loop — it is a self-sustaining set of events or actions that propels itself forward, and tends to grow over time. I think mindfulness practice is a prime example of a positive feedback loop with a positive outcome. Aside from all of the wonderful physiological effects, it creates a pattern of improved behavior, particularly for those of us dealing with a daily challenge like diabetes. It might go something like this:

1. A mindfulness practice reduces stress.
2. The reduced stress helps us clear our thinking and be more present.
3. Clearer thinking and being present helps us make better choices throughout our day, leading to better outcomes with our blood sugar.
4. Among those “better choices” will be the choice to continue in our mindfulness practice.
5. And we’re back at number one again.

Calm amidst the storm
Even if we establish a positive feedback loop, high numbers and unexpected results still happen. They might be less likely, and happen less frequently, but sometimes the body just responds in funny ways. And a consistent mindfulness practice is among the most effective tools we have to handle these irritating fluctuations.

Mindfulness entails the following above all else:

• Being present with what IS (our high blood sugar), instead of chasing what we WISH WERE TRUE (our expected blood sugar).

• Understanding that external events and information (and this includes a blood sugar reading) are temporary, and therefore a poor source of comfort, equilibrium, and a sense of peace.

• Maybe most importantly, understanding that our emotional, stress-filled reaction to bad results is entirely by choice.

Now, let me unpack that last one for a minute. I know how it sounds. It sounds ludicrous, and for someone battling serious consequences, serious medical issues, or serious trauma, it can sound downright insulting. But I’m not trying to suggest that the experience of PAIN isn’t real. Pain exists on its own, pure and simple. What I AM saying, and this has proven true in my own life through a variety of good times, bad times, hopeful times, and extremely painful times, is that we have a strong tendency to take our pain and magnify it. We experience pain, but then we react to it, we try to run from it, we pull away from it — we do the exact opposite of rule number one above. And what we fail to see is that by pushing against pain, we increase its power (because our actions are completely dictated by our reaction to the pain). We increase its power over us, and we inadvertently magnify it.

Think about a small example. Think about a trip to the dentist. The actual visit takes one hour. But what do we do? We start thinking about it the week before. We build up with anticipation, with dread. We let that one hour hang over us for days, maybe even weeks. But that won’t change anything about our direct experience. Our direct experience is one hour of discomfort. That’s it. All of the rest of the suffering is our choice to engage in worry and pushing AGAINST the simple reality of what IS — that next week, we’ll have one hour we won’t like.

Take another example, one much closer to home. Imagine you eat what you thought was a healthy meal, and you took the right amount of insulin. And afterward, you check and your blood sugar is 257. You could do two things. You could a) freak out, worry, overreact, and wallow in your aversion to the reality of your high blood sugar, or you could b) take some insulin to correct it, accept it, and move on.

The thing is, neither reaction will change what IS — a high number. But the second choice will certainly diminish the power it has over us. A mindfulness practice helps us avoid the unnecessary magnifying of a negative outcome. Instead, it contains that negative experience in a finite space. And by containing it, we ensure that a negative experience doesn’t overtake our established positive feedback loop with a new feedback loop going in the wrong direction (a bad number leads to more stress, which leads to worse numbers, which leads to even more stress, which leads to…).

Mindfulness works
Physiologically, philosophically, emotionally, practically, on just about every level, mindfulness works. It is one of the simplest, most powerful tools we have. It’s something every Diabetian should consider. So share your experiences with mindfulness in the comments; let us know how it has worked in your life and in your management of diabetes.