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Diabetes distress: What it is and 8 ways to cope with diabetes

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The daily management of diabetes can take a toll on your mental health. Here are expert strategies for preventing and coping with diabetes burnout.

If you’re living with diabetes, you know how hard it can be. You’ve maybe felt angry, overwhelmed or frustrated.

There’s a name for this feeling: diabetes distress. And it’s common. As many as 1 in 5 people have diabetes distress or burnout at some point.1 It can feel like depression. But it’s caused by the hardships of managing diabetes. Burnout can make it harder to take care of yourself and manage your blood sugar.

“For many other conditions you just take a pill. Diabetes is different. It can feel like it’s taking over your life,” says Martin Greenfield, MD. He’s an endocrinologist at ProHEALTH Lake Success Endocrinology, part of Optum, in New Hyde Park, New York.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to feel better and make it easier to care for your diabetes. These eight expert tips are a great place to start.2,3

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1. Recognize feelings of diabetes burnout and share them with your doctor

Begin by taking a step back to think about how you’ve been feeling. You may have diabetes distress if you:1

  • Have trouble controlling your blood sugar
  • Skip blood sugar checks or medication doses
  • Skip doctor appointments
  • Engage in unhealthy or uncontrolled eating
  • Don’t have support from friends or family members
  • Have other chronic stressors besides to diabetes

“Talk with your doctor if you’re feeling overwhelmed,” says Dr. Greenfield. “There are things we can do.” You can problem-solve together. Maybe you need to change up your care plan or see a specialist. Or join a support group. Your doctor can suggest helpful resources.

2. Try not to see blood sugar checks as pass or fail

Blood sugar numbers are simply pieces of data. You can use them to make choices about food, exercise and insulin. Try to view them objectively. If your numbers are higher than you’d like, think about why. Was it something you ate? Are you feeling stressed? Maybe your doctor can change your medicines.

Blood sugar checks aren’t “good” or “bad.” They’re simply moments to learn more about what works and doesn’t work for you. Understanding your own body is key to caring for your diabetes, says Amy Altenhaus, PhD. She’s a licensed psychologist based in Freehold, New Jersey. She has special training in helping people with diabetes management.

Also keep in mind that unexpected factors can affect your readings. You haven't always done something wrong. “Being sick, for instance, can throw your blood sugar off,” Altenhaus says.

3. Don’t be too hard on yourself

Diabetes management isn’t all or nothing. Sometimes you’ll miss a blood sugar check. Or you won’t have time to exercise. Or you’ll eat something that you know will raise your blood sugar. You don’t need to do everything right all the time. Focus on the big picture. And don’t forget to celebrate your wins.

“You try to manage it as best you can,” says Dr. Greenfield. Don’t let missteps stress you out. Feeling stressed can raise your blood sugar, he adds. Try to focus on the positive. Remind yourself that you’re doing your best.

4. Accept help from friends and family, but communicate your needs

Diabetes can be hard to manage on your own. Support from loved ones can make your diabetes easier to deal with. But sometimes family and friends can cause more stress, says Altenhaus.

Well-meaning advice can feel judgmental and patronizing. If someone’s help is creating more stress, don’t be afraid to tell them. And suggest other ways they can help you. Maybe you want them to join you on walks or for an exercise class. Or try new recipes and plan meals together. Maybe you just need to vent without them trying to solve the problem for you. Your loved ones want to help you. It’s OK to offer guidance on how they can.

5. Be your own support person

“Part of having a chronic health problem is learning how to speak for yourself,” says Altenhaus. You might have to speak up and ask loved ones for help. You may also have to spell out your needs to your care team, too. If something in your care plan isn’t working, don’t hesitate to let your doctor know.

Your care team will work with you to set goals, not tell you what to do. Remember, “you’re the person who is in charge of your life,” says Altenhaus.

6. Find resources to save money or help pay for care

The cost of diabetes medications can be a big burden, Dr. Greenfield says. Let your doctor know if you’re having trouble keeping up with the costs. You may be able to switch to a different medication. You can also connect with a program that provides financial support. A social worker can help you navigate your insurance options.

Do you have a health care flexible spending account (FSA) or a health savings account (HSA)? Those funds can help pay for insulin, other medications and monitoring devices. Use your FSA/HSA card at the pharmacy for extra convenience. Check eligible expenses here.

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7. Connect with other people who have diabetes

Join a diabetes support group in person or online. Talking to others going through the same thing can help you feel less alone, Altenhaus says. The benefits go beyond just lifting your spirits. Going to a support group may help you maintain better blood sugar, research shows.4

Your doctor may be able to suggest a local support group. Or you can search for one online. For example, defeatdiabetes.org has listings of support groups all over the country.

8. Get professional help

Consider seeing a therapist. You can even look for one who’s trained in diabetes. A mental health provider can share tools for coping with stress. They can also help you get comfortable speaking up for yourself. They can also help you shift how you view your problems. The therapist may be able to screen you for underlying problems as well. “A person may have undiagnosed depression. That could be magnifying their sense of defeat,” says Altenhaus.

Living with diabetes isn’t always easy. Finding ways to handle the emotional ups and downs can help you feel better. And in turn, you just might improve your health along the way.

Optum has mental health resources that fit with your life. Work one-on-one with a virtual coach or therapist from AbleTo. Find support.

Sources

  1. American Diabetes Association. Diabetes distress. Accessed July 30, 2022.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 tips for coping with diabetes distress. Last reviewed March 31, 2022. Accessed August 23, 2022.
  3. Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists. Diabetes distress: Dealing with the weight of diabetes. Published 2021. Accessed August 23, 2022.
  4. Epidemiology and Health. The effect of peer support in diabetes self-management education on glycemic control in patients with type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Published October 22, 2021. Accessed August 23, 2022.