Updated 17 February 2017

Psychological aspects of dealing with diabetes

It is difficult to deal with any condition that requires a lifestyle change. It is for this reason that many people who suspect they might be diabetic avoid a final diagnosis.


Lifestyle changes

Diabetes is also a complicated disease, which takes a long time getting used to. Changing one’s lifestyle is also not something that can be easily achieved overnight. Changes in diet and lifestyle patterns, which could include quitting smoking and drinking, can require dramatic intervention on the part of the diabetic.

Drinking, smoking and overeating are also often symptomatic of stress and an underlying depression. If these are used as comforts, it could require therapeutic intervention to sort out the underlying problems driving the lifestyle.

When someone is first diagnosed, denial, anger and guilt are frequent emotions that come to the fore. Many people use denial to avoid the changes they would have to make if they faced the realities of their diabetic condition. Others feel guilty about having developed the condition and subconsciously set out to punish themselves for it.

Which sacrifices are worth making?

“The fact that health threats such as retinopathy or even possible amputations can take many years to develop, makes it difficult for people to focus on the changes they have to make here and now,” says Prof Francois Bonnici of the Endocrine-Diabetes Unit at the UCT Medical School. “People have to decide for themselves which sacrifices are worth making. This is not a decision family or even the doctor can make for somebody.”

Giving up one’s comforts can also cause depression. Families should look out for signs of depression after diagnosis, whether the diabetic is 6 or 60 years old.

Support groups go a long way towards helping people deal with the psychological aspects of living with diabetes. Sharing experiences with people who are also experiencing firsthand what you are going through, goes a long way towards making things easier to live with.

Learning to manage also instills a sense of pride and control in the long run. A blood glucose reading which makes the doctor happy also points to the fact that you are in control of your diabetes and this instills a certain sense of confidence.

Lifestyle changes are traumatic

Any lifestyle change is traumatic and having to deal with a condition that requires many lifestyle changes could be all the more difficult. People need to be given the time to go through a process of grieving and acceptance. A counsellor who is experienced in helping people get through lifestyle changes could be invaluable.

The biggest mistake a newly-diagnosed diabetic could make is to deny that this will change aspects of their lives. Family support and support groups could go along way to making someone feel they are not in this alone. - (Health24, January 2000)


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Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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