What does self-compassion have to do with diabetes?

Our latest findings from Diabetes MILES-2, published in Mindfulness, shows self-compassion is associated with a range of important diabetes outcomes

By Dr Adriana Ventura

If you know much about diabetes, you will know it is a very complex metabolic condition. There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. While they are very different in many ways, they also share some similarities. For one thing, they both place a complex burden of self-care on the person. For another, nobody (with any type of diabetes) asks nor deserves to have it. Yet, a lot of emphasis is placed on people with diabetes ‘controlling’ their condition. The problem with this is that, even despite best efforts, glucose levels go ‘off track’ quite easily, and diabetes self-care is hard to sustain “24/7”. For this reason, we prefer to use the language of ‘managing’ rather than ‘controlling’ diabetes, as we think this is more realistic for, and less burdensome on, the person living with diabetes.

Taking care of diabetes is hard work, and it’s not uncommon for people to criticise themselves when things don’t go well. For many people, this can lead to feelings of self-blame and failure. Unfortunately, this just makes matters worse – it’s hard to take care of yourself when you’re beating up on yourself. Research suggests that self-compassion may be one way to manage these difficult feelings among adults with diabetes. But before we can test this, we need to learn a bit more about whether self-compassion is related to diabetes outcomes.

In our study, 1,907 adults with type 1 or type 2 diabetes completed a range of questionnaires. We found that adults with severe diabetes-specific emotional distress and/or depressive symptoms reported lower levels of self-compassion. Furthermore, those with lower self-compassion were more likely to report fewer days of the week eating a healthy diet and being physically active. After controlling for other factors, we found that lower HbA1c was associated with greater self-compassion. In our study, HbA1c was self-reported but this finding is consistent with other smaller studies. Self-compassion was significantly lower among adults with type 1 diabetes than those with type 2 diabetes, but the size of the difference was very small. So, this finding needs to be interpreted with caution and has not been seen previously in smaller studies.

These are novel findings and offer an initial snapshot of self-compassion in the context of living with and managing diabetes. They suggest that further research in this field is warranted. One trial of a self-compassion intervention has shown promising results, with a reduction in depression and diabetes distress, as well as improvements in clinical outcomes.

To read more about self-compassion, including tips on how to practice self-compassion, visit www.self-compassion.org, which provides an up-to-date list of self-compassion publications.

To read more about the language of diabetes, check out these blogs.

To read more about diabetes distress, check out these blogs.

Ventura AD, Nefs G, Browne JL, Friis A, Pouwer F, Speight J. Is self-compassion related to health behaviours, outcomes and emotional distress in adults with diabetes Results from the second Diabetes MILES – Australia (MILES-2) Study. Mindfulness, 2019; 10(7): 1222-1231.

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