Is Mindfulness the Key to Managing Life with Diabetes?

An Arivale Hot Topic

Jennifer Lovejoy, Arivale Chief Science Officer, PhD
Jennifer Lovejoy
Arivale Chief Science Officer, PhD

“Mindfulness is a state of mind, whereby one is able to maintain present-moment awareness without judgmental thinking … It is as though one learns to be able to view their emotions and cognitive processes from a third-person view, thus obtaining the ‘choice’ of whether or not to act upon them.”

That’s how Medical News Bulletin defines mindfulness-based intervention, a technique that may help people living with a specific condition stick with the behaviors and habits necessary to improve their long-term health and quality of life through acceptance of the negative emotions brought on by their situation.

Diabetes is a complex, chronic condition that requires people living with it to perform daily self-care behaviors to effectively manage their blood sugar – including taking medications, testing their blood sugar, and following specific dietary and exercise regiments.

Because long-term adherence to the behaviors necessary for managing diabetes is often less than optimal, researchers from Bowling Green State University launched an investigation on the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions on the quality of life and metabolic control of people living with diabetes, as well as on diabetes-related distress.

Diabetes-related distress is defined as negative cognitive and emotional responses to the stressors associated with having diabetes, including feelings of anger or discouragement, worries about the ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle or fear of adverse health outcomes. Previous studies have shown higher levels of diabetes-related distress are associated with reduced medication adherence, less time spent exercising, a less healthy diet, and more.

The study

The meta-analysis by researchers at Bowling Green – published earlier this year in Behavioral Medicine – examined 14 studies that used various types of mindfulness-based interventions on people living with diabetes.

The self-care behaviors necessary for people living with diabetes can produce negative thoughts (such as, “I hate being sick” or, “These lifestyle changes are too hard”), which can lead to negative emotions. When negative thoughts are interpreted as being real, objective information, it can lead to self-defeating behaviors, such as not taking medication or sticking with a diabetes diet plan.

Mindfulness practices could address this issue by helping people living with diabetes become aware of negative thoughts, recognize those thoughts aren’t necessarily accurate reflections of facts, and develop a greater ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotions or experiences.

Unfortunately, the researchers were unable to find strong evidence to support the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions for people with diabetes – possibly due to many of the 14 studies being small and of short duration. The authors do, however, report some beneficial findings for quality of life and diabetes-related distress and conclude the results “show promise.”

Arivale responds

Both scientific research and Arivale member experience speak to the profound benefits of a regular mindfulness practice in managing the negative thoughts that are a normal part of human life – and perhaps especially so when one is dealing with a chronic medical condition.

There’s a large amount of research showing that mindfulness-based interventions have benefits for a variety of conditions. Given the factors that drive diabetes-related distress – negative thoughts leading to difficult emotions and potential unhelpful behaviors – it makes sense that mindfulness practice could benefit people living with diabetes.

While the meta-analysis didn’t find very strong evidence for this, it seems this was more because there were relatively few studies – mostly small pilots with limited follow up. Thus, it’s too early to conclude that mindfulness doesn’t have a benefit for people living with diabetes.

Another limitation of the meta-analysis was that a wide variety of mindfulness-based interventions were used in the studies analyzed – ranging from mindfulness-based stress reduction, to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, to a mindful eating program.

While all these approaches have mindfulness as a core component, there are other programmatic differences that could lead to variation in the results and reduction in statistical power to test an overall effect.

We encourage you to explore one or more of the various mindfulness approaches now available – ranging from mobile apps like Headspace to in-person classes – and see how it impacts your day-to-day experience.

Further reading


[Arivale Hot Topics address health stories currently in the news. The Arivale Clinical Team’s commentary on these news articles is not a review of the scientific evidence, nor an endorsement of a specific study, and is not meant as official medical opinion.]