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How Meditation Can Improve Life With Diabetes

Published: 11/7/22 3:30 pm

By Alison Massey

Research suggests that incorporating meditation and mindful-based practice can help you reduce distress, improve your well-being, and even contribute to diabetes self-management goals.

The first time I attended an online mindfulness session for people with diabetes, I was surprised at how nervous I was. Fear of the unknown. It was also scheduled for an hour. Could I stay that long?

I soon realized that I worried for no reason. It felt like a community, even done virtually. Attendees made small talk about life and diabetes before the session. The facilitators, all living with diabetes, guided a transformative experience. They explained that the session might bring up different emotions and to let them pass. It didn't feel like an hour, and I ended the practice with a true sense of calm and peace.

The community was Diabetes Sangha, founded in 2021 by Sam Tullman, Brooke Cassoff and Peter Friedfeld.

Tullman, Cassoff, and Friedfeld all found meditation and mindful-based practices in different ways. A college athlete, Tullman started incorporating mindful practice to improve his athletic abilities. Cassoff started a yoga practice, her sister’s suggestion, not long after her type 1 diagnosis. Friedfeld took an online class taught by Tullman on meditation and mindfulness. He continued with his practice, inspired by the emotional and physical health benefits. 

Soon, they all realized the positive spill-over to their diabetes care.

Tullman, Cassoff, and Friedfeld’s positive experiences with mindful-based practice has scientific support. Research suggests that meditation and mindful-based practice can help people with diabetes.

Studies have found improvements in:

  • Fasting blood sugar for those with type 2 diabetes

  • A1C levels

  • Eating patterns

  • Feelings of support

  • Diabetes distress

The reported benefits might help people dealing with the stress of managing diabetes. Mind-body practices may help reduce anxiety, depression, diabetes distress and diabetes stigma. Studies on the health benefits have been done for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. One meta-analysis found improvements in fasting blood sugar and A1C for those with type 2 diabetes. Randomized studies find that mindful-based strategies might improve healthy coping and self-care behaviors.

Studies also find meditative and mindful-based practice can change the brain. The way the brain changes can impact mental, emotional and physical health. Several studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have found change in both the structure and function of the brain. Scans showed increased brain activity in areas associated with attention and self-awareness. While there was decreased activity in areas involved in the fight or flight response. Researchers are studying how these changes might differ between beginners and experienced meditators.

Want to start your own mindful practice to improve diabetes management and well-being? There are many different ways to start whether it is on your own using an app or joining a community.

Here are a few suggestions on the best ways to get started from the founders of Diabetes Sangha.

1. Start with an App

There are many popular meditation-based apps like Headspace and Calm. Tullman suggests two apps in particular – the Healthy Minds Program and Waking Up. These apps support mindful-based practice and other learning opportunities.

  • Healthy Minds Program This app provides guided meditations and includes podcast-style teachings. Neuroscientist, Dr. Richard J. Davidson and his team at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin created the app.

  • Waking Up provides guided meditation practice. It also has lessons exploring related science, theories and philosophy behind mindfulness. Dr. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, philosopher and best-selling author, is the creator of the Waking Up app.

2. Show Up to Your Practice

Mindful-based practice doesn’t always feel great or even the same each time.

“Just like a new workout routine, at first it might feel difficult,” Friedfeld said. “Every workout doesn’t feel fantastic but each time you are still getting health benefits. Mindful-based practice is similar. You will get benefits every time and eventually you will have less judgment over the results.”

3. Bring an Attitude of Flexibility and Creativity

Stay open-minded and leave preconceived notions and stereotypes  behind you.

Cassoff emphasized that these practices can take many different forms. It's helpful to let go of notions that mindfulness needs to be a certain way. She said that individuals with diabetes tend to develop skills for problem-solving. She encourages people to bring those skills to mindful-based practice.

There is not one way to practice meditation and mindfulness. Most types revolve around core components that include:

  • Focused attention

  • Self-regulation of emotion

  • Compassion

  • Creating more self-awareness

4. Find a Community

Cassoff, Tullman and Friedfeld all recommended finding a community. They expressed the extra support this provided to their personal mindful-based practice.

Friedfeld suggested finding a community where you have something in common.  He was leading a mindful-based session when his diabetes-device alarms interrupted the practice. What was an interruption became a moment of connection. The other members of the group all also had diabetes. Some had even experienced their own devices alerting at inconvenient times.

Managing diabetes lends itself to a co-mingled mind-body connection. There are physical symptoms and data but also decision-making and emotions involved. Tullman shared that mindfulness allows a person to, "become a first-person scientist of their own life". This can carry into life’s journey to live well managing diabetes.

Interested in finding your own meditation and mindfulness community?

Here are a few places to start:

Diabetes Sangha

  • The community offers free monthly live zoom sessions, special events and workshops.

  • Facilitators are people living with Type 1 diabetes.

Website: DiabetesSangha.com

Mindful Leader

  • Offering mindfulness training, certification programs, community of practice & events.

  • Headquartered in the Washington DC area, the community is international and multidisciplinary.

Website: Mindfulleader.org

Online Meditation Events

  • There are 350 centers located throughout the world.

  • Online meditation classes and in-person options at center locations.

Website: Onlinemeditationevents.com

What do you think?