Anxiety + Diabetes
State(s) of Fear
Anxiety has become one of the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses in the United States. It seems everywhere you turn, someone is talking about it. Whether it’s their child or themselves that are afflicted, everyone and their mother seems to suffer from some level of anxiety. There has been a particular uptick in the level of anxiety reported in children and adolescents. While mental health professionals are trying to put their finger on what exactly is contributing to this—technology, political climate, homework—you don’t have to dig deep to find a reason for increased levels of anxiety in those living with type 1 diabetes. To begin unpacking this issue, first let’s take a look at what the “A” word actually means.
What is anxiety, exactly?
A certain level of anxiety is healthy—necessary, even. It is what prevents us from engaging in dangerous behaviors, and what keeps us motivated to accomplish the things we need to do. The dictionary definition of anxiety reads as follows: “distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune.”1 When this distress gets too high, or is disproportionate to the situation provoking it, the person tends to suffer from anxiety instead of benefitting from it.
Some of the more common forms of anxiety disorders are:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
A prolonged state of worry or tendency to worry about any and everything. GAD can have physical manifestations, such as GI problems and difficulty sleeping. Someone living with GAD will have a tendency to view everything through a lens of anxiety, and be bombarded with “what-ifs?”
Panic disorder can occur after a person experiences one or multiple panic attacks, and is living in constant fear of the next one occurring. Everyone experiences panic attacks in different ways, but the most common symptoms are shortness of breath, feelings of impending doom, de-personalization (that feeling when you are floating outside your body), and heart palpitations, to name a few.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Basically what it sounds like, social anxiety disorder is when people experience extreme discomfort and anxiety around other people. This anxiety is rooted in the fear of what others think of you, or of embarrassing yourself or looking foolish.
Diabetes & Anxiety
Type 1 diabetes (T1D) and anxiety are made to exacerbate one another. The fears and thought patterns that fuel anxiety are inherent to managing diabetes. On the flip side, struggling with anxiety can wreak havoc on your blood sugars. The more time I’ve spent working with and trying to pick apart anxiety disorders, the more I’ve realized how counterintuitive diabetes management is to anxiety levels.
Running through the back of every anxious mind is a pestering whisper of what if? “What if I die?” “What if I embarrass myself?” “What if I fail?” These persistent questions can be crippling. However, when managing diabetes, it is often necessary to ponder what if. For example, I am about to pre-bolus for my dinner on my way home, but what if I get stuck in traffic? I am preparing for a run by adjusting my dosage and snacking, but what if it rains?
At the forefront of diabetes management is planning. Unfortunately, planning often invites what ifs, and what ifs can easily manifest into anxiety. When you are living with anxiety, it is often difficult to differentiate between rational or helpful what ifs and irrational, detrimental ones. Considering the rain or traffic while planning your insulin dosage can be productive, while repetitively pondering the possibility of going low and passing out during your exercise routine is not.
Living in the present
Similarly, planning for diabetes care can interfere with being present in the current moment. In recent years there has been growing evidence of the efficacy of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and meditation for treatment of anxiety2. Much of our worry is rooted in what may or may not happen in the future. But it is hard to focus on the present moment and often difficult to be spontaneous when you’ve got insulin on board (IOB), sensors with downward-pointing arrows and a fixed amount of juice in your handbag. Even the actual practice of meditation can be interrupted by alerting insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors (CGMs). As mentioned above, diabetes management involves a lot of planning. And a lot of planning means a lot of future-oriented thinking.
Much like planning, with diabetes checking is essential. Checking you blood sugar, checking your IOB, checking your low supplies. But for someone with anxiety, checking can spiral into an obsessive ritual. People suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have certain rituals they perform to quiet obsessive thoughts that repeatedly run through their mind. Because checking is so essential for diabetes management, it’s easy for someone susceptible to anxiety to fall into a pattern of over-checking. Picture this: you feel anxious about going low, check your sensor data and see no downward arrows. You feel a temporary wave of relief. But moments later, those thoughts recur. They get louder and louder in your head, until you have to check your sensor again—still no downward arrows. You see how this can fall into a negative thought-behavior cycle.
Where do we go from here?
Fortunately, much like type one, anxiety is manageable. But it takes work. If you feel like anxiety is interfering with you or your child’s everyday life, consider seeing a therapist. There are many therapists who have experience working with people with chronic illness. And if they don’t, BT1 has a helpful guide to teach them about type 13.
Where to start: finding a therapist
Your primary care doctor or pediatrician may have some referrals. Or, if you feel comfortable, ask around. It’s more than likely that many people in your life see a therapist and you have no idea. Or, if you have private insurance, you can try calling the “Member Services” number on the back of the insurance card and asking for referrals to local in-network behavioral health providers. There are also many ways to locate a therapist online:
- ADA Mental Health Provider Directory Listing: https://professional.diabetes.org/mhp_listing
- Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us
- NASW: https://www.helppro.com/nasw/BasicSearch.aspx
- SAMHSA: https://www.samhsa.gov/
If you have Medicaid (or Medical, or your state’s equivalent), your state’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services should have resources for local community mental health centers that accept this insurance. Your therapist or primary care doctor will also be able to suggest if you should consult a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist can prescribe medications for behavioral health concerns.
While diabetes and anxiety may make a great pair, you don’t have to constantly live at their mercy. As you learn to accept and manage your anxiety, you’ll learn how to live well with it. It won’t be easy, and there’s a lot of trial and error. Of course, having type 1 means you’re used to that! And always remember, you’re not alone in this.