What I’ve Learned About Mental Health & Diabetes

In honor of Diabetes Awareness Month, I wanted to share some things I’ve learned about diabetes and mental health over the past 23 years of living with the condition and working as a counseling therapist within the community.

Here are a few key take-aways: 

#1: Looking after your mental health is essential to your diabetes management.

This point cannot be overstated enough. To no fault of our own, much of what we experience when it comes to diabetes care is centered around physical health and wellness. And while that side of things is important too, our mental health often gets overlooked. As you know, managing diabetes requires a lot of emotional bandwidth, and if we are constantly using it up without replenishing it, we will simply run out which can result in distress. 

So, how do we replenish that emotional bandwidth? I am a big fan of mindfulness and suggest starting with the following Dropping Anchor exercise adapted from Dr. Russ Harris’ work:

Imagine there is a boat out at sea facing a large storm. In order to keep itself steady, it chooses to drop an anchor. Although dropping an anchor does not change the weather in any way, it makes riding out the storm more manageable. This is a helpful analogy to use when experiencing challenging thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We can think of those things as an “internal storm” and we can choose to “drop an anchor” as a way to ride them out.

  • Start by closing your eyes or staring at a point in your space.
  • Turn your attention inwards and acknowledge any thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are coming up for you. You do not need to try and change them, or make them go away. You are simply acknowledging that they are there with you.
  •  While keeping those thoughts, feelings, and sensations in mind, move your body by stretching your arms out in front of you. Keep in mind that you are in control of this movement as you stretch. You may also choose to take several deep breaths here.
  • Next, bring your attention to your surroundings and take notice of any sounds you hear around you.
  • Repeat Steps 2-4 several times as needed. When you are ready, open your eyes and return.

In addition, managing stress levels can also be helpful in restoring our emotional bandwidth. We can think of stress as energy within the body. If we don’t remove that energy, it will continue to live on internally with no real place to go. We can release stress energy through activities such as engaging in movement, creating through art or other forms, and even giving someone a 20-second hug! I encourage you to try a few different strategies and see which ones work best for you. 

#2. Burnout is likely to happen AND it’s not your fault.

As previously mentioned, diabetes requires a lot of us – our time, energy, and everything in between. With this in mind, many of us will experience burnout at some point or another. Symptoms of burnout can include the following: exhaustion, lack of motivation, avoidance of diabetes-related management tasks (ex. missing insulin doses, testing blood sugars less or not at all, missing appointments, etc.), irritability, and/or isolation. It’s important to note that burnout presents differently for everyone and to not discount your own experience. 

With this in mind, our first reaction to burnout is often to blame ourselves and to think that we haven’t done enough or aren’t good enough; but, this is hardly the case. Burnout is often the result of doing too much for too long. So, if you experience burnout in your diabetes journey, know that it comes with the territory and it’s not on you. 

One helpful strategy is to practice self-compassion. You can do this by asking yourself how you might show up with kindness in this moment. This might look like giving yourself permission to experience challenging feelings and thoughts, engaging in self-soothing activities (ex. placing your hand over your heart, giving yourself a hug), or speaking to yourself as you would to a friend. 

#3. Community is key. 

Have you ever had the thought that no one else understands what it’s like to live with diabetes? Full disclosure – I have! And while there is some truth to that, afterall no one will ever experience diabetes in the exact same way as you or I, it’s also safe to say that there are others who do know approximately what it’s like. Connecting with these people is truly invaluable to beat isolation. 

So, how do you find this community? Online is a great place to start. There are so many wonderful virtual communities, such as the Diabetes Daily Grind, that exist to create such connections. Social media is also a fantastic way to meet other individuals living with T1D and to find out about local events, such as meetups or workshops, that are taking place near you. 

#4. It’s okay to ask for help.

This one might be a cliche, but it’s true nevertheless. Whether you are currently experiencing distress or not, seeking mental health support is always a good idea. Afterall, living with diabetes is not easy and we shouldn’t have to carry the emotional load alone. 

Seeking out a therapist is a bit like dating – you might have to meet with a few of them in the beginning to determine who is the best fit for you before landing on the right one. In addition, I suggest taking some time to decide whether or not you’d like your therapist to have lived experience with T1D. Although not necessary for success, it can sometimes be an added bonus to know that your therapist also lives with diabetes or has some relation to it. 

Lastly, it’s okay to feel scared/nervous/worried (insert your emotion of choice here: __________) about asking for help. Know that you can experience those emotions and still do it anyways. You’ve got this!

BIO: 
Kayla Chorley, BEd MACP CCC, is a certified Canadian Counsellor and Counseling Therapist based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Through her private practice, Pineapple Therapy, she extends her support to individuals living with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), primarily focusing on areas such as burnout, diabetes distress, and hypoanxiety. Additionally, she can be found at the Edmonton Diabetes & High-Risk Foot Clinic once a month and serves as a committee member for the annual Diabetes + Mental Health Conference, held virtually each year.

Having lived with T1D for 23 years, Kayla is deeply passionate about supporting the mental health of the T1D community, drawing from her personal experience of the emotional toll that living with this chronic condition can take. She firmly advocates that mental health and wellness are key components of diabetes management, often overlooked in diabetes care.

As a result of her dedication, Kayla has been invited to speak about diabetes and mental health on numerous podcasts and had the honour of providing a keynote address at the 2023 JDRF Walk For the Cure. Furthermore, she regularly hosts webinars for parents and caregivers who are supporting children and teens living with T1D.

Kayla provides both online and in-person counselling services to individuals across Alberta and various other regions of Canada. For more information about her practice, please visit www.pineappletherapy.ca.

Beyond her professional life, Kayla enjoys camping in the mountains, walking her dogs, spending time with family, watching Oilers games, and collaborating with her partner on home renovation projects.

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