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How to Build Resilience as a Person With Diabetes

Published: 10/10/22
By Amelia Harnish

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. From a data control associate to therapist to nurse practitioner, three women practice resiliency to navigate the many ups and downs of living with diabetes.

Jai Stubblefield knows firsthand how stressful diabetes can be. The 45-year-old data control associate from Little Rock, Arkansas, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1995. Ever since, she’s had her share of experiences dealing with the many ups and downs of a life with diabetes:  insurance issues, medication changes, the ever-present need to plan meals, and explaining (yet again) her health needs at work. 

But over the years, she’s learned the key to rising above it all is a little thing called resilience. 

“That is 90 percent of having diabetes,” Stubblefield says. “Your mind is powerful, and sometimes if you feel a certain way, it will make your whole body feel that way.”

“In the simplest terms, ‘resilience’ means the ability to bounce back from stress or adversity,” said Lesley Koeppel, a New York-based therapist who specializes in counseling people with chronic illness. When it comes to diabetes, there are plenty of setbacks to overcome. But research shows that those who have higher resilience tend to have lower A1C levels and improved quality of life

“People think you’re either resilient or you’re not, but it’s something you can work toward. Resilience is like a muscle—you can build it up,” Koeppel said. Multiple studies back this up. 

A 2018 study found that learning how to be more resilient helped young adults with diabetes manage their blood sugar. Another 2022 study showed that people with diabetes who had low levels of resilience were at greater risk for higher blood glucose levels. 

Improving your own resilience is possible. Here are four ways to build resilience as a person with diabetes. 

Allow yourself to feel sad, upset or frustrated

This may sound counterintuitive, but being resilient doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions, Koeppel says. In fact, in her experience the first step to “bouncing back” from a setback or stressful situation is allowing yourself to feel — and then release  — those negative emotions. 

“A big mistake is to think resilience is just pushing through it,” Koeppel explained. “To build resilience you have to acknowledge the sadness and pain you feel.” This can be especially important for those newly diagnosed with diabetes. “Step one is to grieve and mourn over this huge change in your life,” shel added. 

Be open about your struggles

For Stubblefield, one of the most stressful parts of life with diabetes is battling misconceptions.

“There’s a stereotype with type 2 diabetes that it’s easy or it’s the ‘mild’ type of diabetes,” she said. “For me, being open about how hard it can be really helps. I’m not the only person dealing with this.” 

You can often find her on Twitter, sharing her thoughts and what she wishes people knew about type 2 diabetes.  “I’m very blunt about it because I want people to understand,” Stubblefield said.  

Being open about what you’re going through can help you build resilience because it can help you release any negative emotions.  It can also help you find support from others. 

If you’re not comfortable sharing in an open forum like Stubblefield does, try finding a support group. 

“There is nothing more powerful than being in a room or on a Zoom with other people going through the same exact thing as you are,” Koeppel said. “Support is key in any of this.”

Research has also supported the benefits of social support. A 2017 study followed 471 adolescents with type 1 diabetes and found that those who had more “diabetes strength behaviors,” such as seeking support, tended to be more resilient, check their glucose levels more often, and had a lower A1C and better quality of life. 

Create a routine—one step at a time.

“When it comes to managing diabetes, forming healthy habits, like meal planning and exercising, can also help create resilience,” explained Jennifer Schwartz, a Miami-based nurse practitioner and certified diabetes educator. 

“Whether you have diabetes or not, everyone needs self-care, but with diabetes, these things are even more important because if you don’t do them it can cause a lot of harm,” she said. 

Routines are important for resilience because they can offer some sense of control over your daily life. When you feel more in control, daily life stress caused by the things you can’t control (like being stuck in traffic, dealing with your insurance company, or simply just having a bad day) is less likely to overwhelm you. 

Stubblefield does all her meal planning and prepping on Sundays for the coming week. 

“I do breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” she said. “It’s not always easy to do, but it makes the week much easier. If I come home from work and don’t feel well, dinner is already taken care of. I don’t have to think about it.”

It can be hard to create a routine and stick with it. 

“Make one small change at a time,” Schwartz said. “When you make changes slowly, you are more likely to create long-term habits. With every healthy change, you start to feel better, which helps you stick with it.” 

So for example, if you’re not ready to do a full meal prep, just tackle changing your breakfast up. “Take it one meal at a time,” she said. 

Check in with your mental health as much as you check on your physical health

A huge part of building resilience is taking the time to de-stress. 

“You have to control your diabetes, but you also need to enjoy your life and not always be consumed with what you’re eating and your numbers,” Schwartz said. Taking the time to check in with how you’re coping mentally is just as important as making sure you’re coping physically.

It is also important to make sure your diabetes isn’t running the show. “With diabetes, it is a 24-7 thing you’re managing,” Stubblefield said. “I’ve had issues with being afraid to eat.” To manage her stress, Stubblefield likes to listen to music at work and go for daily walks. These habits help her from getting to a place of overwhelm.

Support is also key for managing stress. Koeppel recommends figuring out what kind of support you need. 

“There are people who need the cheerleading type of support. They want someone to say ‘it’s okay you’re gonna get through this.’” Koeppel said. “Others get annoyed by that. They want someone who just lets them vent and listens. You have to know yourself and what works for you.”

For more information on diabetes resilience, read: Is Diabetes Resilience a Muscle You Can Build?

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About the authors

Amelia Harnish is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Copake, NY. Her writing has appeared in New York Times Parenting, The Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, and Women's Health, among... Read the full bio »