When the going gets tough, learning to adapt and find balance can help you rebound stronger than before.

Ginny Graves
May 06, 2020
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Robert Neubecker

Think back to a time when you received your A1C results and were disappointed by the numbers. What did you do next? How you respond after a setback—whether you sink into frustration or despair or instead focus on what you've been doing well, even if the numbers aren't cooperating—is surprisingly important for your health. The latter shows resilience (the ability to roll with the ups and downs of life), which has been associated with better self-care, reduced stress, and even improved A1C levels.

Resilience isn't about being relentlessly sunny. It's also not a built-in trait, like optimism. This process of bouncing back from difficult experiences is something that anyone can learn. And it can be particularly useful when you're managing a chronic condition. "Dealing with diabetes is emotionally challenging, and it's normal to have times when you feel discouraged or burned out," says Marisa Hilliard, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine. "Resilience is what happens when you have the confidence to cope with discouragement and not let it derail you."

So how do you build resilience? It starts with taking a moment each day to shift your focus from what's going wrong to what you're doing right, says Hilliard. So, quick: What's one thing you've done for yourself today? Did you go for a short walk? Eat a nutritious breakfast? Take your meds? Give yourself a big pat on the back. See? That wasn't so hard. Here are seven other ways to fortify your ability to rebound from setbacks.

Play to your strengths

"If you're organized and like to make lists, use that skill to make the daily demands of diabetes care more manageable," suggests Hilliard. Or if humor is your secret superpower, look for light-hearted posts and cartoons on your favorite diabetes blog. (Need a suggestion? Try DiabetesMine's Sunday Funnies.) Laughter is a sure way to make life look less daunting. If you're spiritual, take time every day to write down what you're thankful for. Gratitude can bolster happiness and self-esteem, and also reduce stress. Meanwhile, family-first types can prioritize dinners and activities with loved ones (social connections can protect you from depression), and people who love their jobs can volunteer for engaging new projects, which heightens your sense of competence and mastery. "Using your existing skill set to tackle diabetes challenges will naturally make you feel more empowered—a mindset that makes you better equipped to handle challenges," says Hilliard.

Watch what you say

Language is powerful—and can impact how you feel and behave, says Mary de Groot, Ph.D., president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association. "We use the word 'control' a lot in diabetes care, which implies that you have total control over your blood sugar, and that's just not accurate," she says. Worse, it's judgmental. So it makes you feel bad about yourself, which makes it harder to be resilient. "It's healthier and more realistic to talk about blood sugar 'management,'" says de Groot. Other resilience-bolstering language: Instead of telling yourself that exercising and eating right are things you have to do, which feels like you're following someone else's rules, embrace them as things you choose to do. Rather than calling yourself a patient, which can convey a sense of helplessness, think of yourself as part of your health care team, partnering with your doctors to achieve better health. And try not to think of A1C results as a report card that you either pass or fail, but rather as an indication of how well your management plan is working for you. "It's medical data, not a judgment about you as a human being," says de Groot.

Take time to recharge your batteries

"Some people get energy from being social and spending time with friends," says de Groot. Others like to take a walk in nature or meditate or volunteer at a homeless shelter or get extra sleep. Make a list of the things that put gas back in your tank and regularly put them on your calendar, along with your appointments and daily errands. "Everyone is more resilient when they take a moment for self-care," says de Groot.

Robert Neubecker

Be wary of fads

"There's always some new diet or supplement that promises a miracle cure," says Megan Muñoz, RN, CDCES, founder of the podcast Type2andYou with Meg. "If you keep chasing those, you're setting yourself up for disappointment." Instead, she suggests attending a diabetes self-management training class, which can fill you in on the latest, most scientifically valid approaches to diabetes care, as well as provide one-on-one training. "It's the best way to lay a solid foundation for understanding diabetes and combating misconceptions," says Muñoz. And it's often covered by insurance and Medicare.

Expect setbacks

It might seem counterintuitive, but when things are going well it's easy to think your challenges are behind you—and then to feel ambushed when you run into a problem. "As time goes on, your body changes, so the exercise and nutrition routine that has worked well might not be as effective and can make you feel like a failure," says Muñoz. "But if you see change as normal—and even expect it—you're less likely to be totally thrown by it."

Treat yourself kindly

"When you hit a rough patch, it's natural to feel down and disheartened," says Muñoz. "But instead of beating yourself up, talk to yourself like you would to a close friend." Normalize what you're feeling by telling yourself, "It's OK. Everyone has setbacks and disappointments." You can even close your eyes and give yourself a hug, a simple act that engages the calming, parasympathetic branch of your nervous system and helps you feel loved.

Acknowledge when you need help

Pay attention to your emotions, and when you start feeling overwhelmed (red flags can include feeling down, irritable, defensive, withdrawn, hopeless, or helpless, says Hilliard), use that as a cue to seek support. Friends and family are usually happy to pick up a prescription if you're feeling crunched for time, or to listen if you need to vent. And strangers can be surprisingly helpful too. "Social media is a great place to connect with other people with diabetes, and they're more likely to get what you're going through than someone without the condition," says Muñoz. (One option: Community.Diabetes.org.)

If you're still struggling, consider seeing a mental health professional, who can help you work through emotional challenges and identify the things that are standing in the way of achieving your goals. "If possible, it's best to find a behavioral health provider who understands diabetes, so you don't have to spend time explaining why it's so hard," says Hilliard.