Your Brain and Diabetes Management

Right between your ears is your incredible and mysterious brain, and your brain plays essential roles in managing diabetes. But, the different roles your brain plays in diabetes management aren’t always in your best interests, and more often than you might imagine messages from your brain make managing diabetes more difficult.

It’s obvious that your brain helps you to understand diabetes, to remember what your healthcare team has advised you to do, to schedule your time, to decide what you’re going to eat, and to comprehend what you read in this book. The part of your brain doing your thinking, the outer cerebral cortex layer, is an amazing problem solver that has never been duplicated biologically or electronically.

Your thinking brain can evaluate hundreds of variables, look at issues from every direction, factor in previous experience, apply concepts that are only abstract, project future outcomes, and come to solidly logical conclusions. When your thinking brain is in charge, it’s hard to go wrong. And, if things do go wrong, your thinking brain will figure out exactly why, and make sure the same thing doesn’t go wrong again.

But, guess what? Your thinking brain isn’t always in charge. Recognizing how your thinking brain can be nullified in diabetes management can lead to more success — you can change the circumstances and give power back to that part of your brain best suited for management.

Seconding that emotion

It’s easy to see how your thinking brain gets overruled if you think about emotions. There’s really no way to avoid some emotional decisions, and seeking or avoiding an emotion in a specific circumstance has an emotional benefit. An illogical decision now and then about diabetes is unavoidable.

It’s when a particular pattern of emotional decision making becomes a way of life that problems can arise, and when diabetes is involved illogical emotional behavior can be dangerous. Here are some common emotional patterns that really interfere with self-care:

  • Anger and resentment are common, and completely understandable, among people with type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a virtually random and completely life-changing event which happens suddenly, mostly to young and otherwise healthy individuals. And, the management responsibilities are more complex than with type 2 diabetes and are unending.

    But, when natural anger and resentment at fate turns into a defiant refusal to give in to the management responsibilities of type 1 diabetes, serious consequences can result. Anger and resentment are natural emotions — defiance is not.

  • Guilt can play a similar role in type 2 diabetes because type 2 diabetes usually develops slowly, and in many cases could have been prevented. Guilt is anger, but directed at oneself rather than at fate. Guilt about type 2 diabetes can lead to thinking you deserve the worst diabetes can offer, and that emotion is incompatible with managing diabetes to preserve your health.

  • Viewing illness as a personal weakness keeps people, more often men, from even acknowledging diabetes, or has them looking to challenge diabetes to a strength contest. Ironically, the greatest strength is acknowledging the reality of diabetes, and taking self-management responsibilities seriously.

  • Misplaced selflessness is an emotional reaction more common among women. Managing diabetes effectively does require prioritizing your own health, and taking time for exercise or changing a family’s eating patterns can take a back seat to what’s perceived as caring for others.

These emotional patterns usually impact the whole range of diabetes management, not just eating. With some self-analysis, maybe helped by counseling, misdirected emotional responses to diabetes can be changed for the better.

Exposing impulsive eating

Your body has a secret language — a chemical language. Although you don’t consciously understand this chemical language, this chemical language stores vivid memories, especially about food, and you can understand those memories very, very well.

It’s an amazing system that has helped humans survive the toughest times. For an overly simplistic explanation, consider that the part of your brain responsible for survival doesn’t trust your thinking brain with some very important responsibilities. Your thinking brain could be so wrapped up evaluating something logically that it might forget to eat when food is available. And, in tough times, you have to grab food whenever you can.

So this part of your brain gives you a fabulous chemical reward when you remember to eat — a chemical that brings a comforting feeling of well-being. It’s a chemical reward that’s so satisfying that you’ll remember to eat no matter what your thinking brain is preoccupied with.

And to make double sure you won’t miss an eating opportunity, your brain gives you a little boost even if you think about food, or see a picture of food. Eventually, impulsive eating when food is available is second nature and completely unconscious. Most importantly, in the contest between your impulse to eat and your thinking brain, impulse usually wins.

This amazing biological system is, however, obsolete in a society where food is constantly available, and is running on overload when images of food surround you everywhere you look. It does not, however, have an off switch. If managing diabetes effectively depends upon managing food effectively, impulsive eating is public enemy number one.

That’s where meal planning comes in. Planning ahead puts your thinking brain in charge, and it’s your thinking brain that understands how important what you eat today and tomorrow can be to your health ten years from now.

Your thinking brain may not be good for making spur-of-the-moment decisions, but when you give it time, without standing in front of an open refrigerator or watching a waiter deliver food to the next table, you win.

That is precisely what makes diabetes meal planning so crucial. Taking emotion and impulse out of your eating decisions means better decisions, and better decisions about food can have a direct and immediate benefit to your health.

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