What impact does personality have on mental and physical well-being among adults with type 2 diabetes and depressive symptoms?

Research from Sydney’s Black Dog Institute has looked at the role of personality on changes in distress over time

By Ralph Geerling

Self-care can be very challenging for people with type 2 diabetes (T2D). It is quite common for people to experience diabetes distress, mental health and physical issues. But can personality influence how likely a person is to have mental and physical health problems?

Personality refers to a person’s typical way of thinking, feeling and behaving. It is often measured on a scale across five traits:

    • O = openness to experience (practical vs imaginative)
    • C = conscientiousness (impulsive vs disciplined)
    • E = extraversion (reserved vs sociable)
    • A = agreeableness (suspicious vs trusting), and
    • N = neuroticism (calm vs anxious).

These traits are fairly stable over time and across situations.

A study by researchers at the Black Dog Institute, Sydney, shows how personality affects changes in mental and physical health among adults with T2D and mild or moderate depressive symptoms over 12 months.

They measured the five personality traits in 200 adults with T2D. At baseline, 3 months, 6 months and 12 months, they also assessed diabetes distress, depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, diabetes self-care and general functioning (work and social). At 6 and 12 months, they assessed HbA1c (average blood glucose).

Here is what they found:

    • Low N (less anxious, more calm): reduced diabetes distress, depression, anxiety and improved functioning over 12 months.
    • High E (more sociable, less reserved): reduced anxiety and improved functioning over 12 months.
    • High C (more discipline, less impulsive): increase in healthy eating over 12 months.
    • No personality trait had a direct influence on HbA1c.

The researchers note that time since diagnosis and complications also affect mental and physical health. However, they conclude that because personality can be assessed at the time of diagnosis, these early insights could guide medical care.

This may not be practical for busy clinicians. Complete personality assessments use long questionnaires and can take time. Shorter assessments exist but may not provide as full a picture of a person’s personality. Instead, diabetes education sessions could include information about the role of personality in overall health.  This could assist people with T2D to be aware of how their own personality may affect their mood and diabetes self-care.

S Sanatkar, P Baldwin, J Clarke, S Fletcher, J Gunn, K Wilhelm, L Campbell, N Zwar, M Harris, H Lapsley, D Hadzi-Pavlovic, H Christensen, and J Proudfoot (2020). The influence of personality on trajectories of distress, health and functioning in mild-to-moderately depressed adults with type 2 diabetes. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 25:3, 296-308, DOI: 0.1080/13548506.2019.1668567

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