New study demonstrates that mindfulness techniques promote health for diabetes patients

A new study has found that patients with diabetes are routinely taught to manage their disease but will be more successful if also taught how to deal with the fear, sadness and anger that comes from having it.

Even a small amount of training in acceptance, mindfulness, and values helps patients better control their blood glucose, and produce a higher quality of life, according to Steven Hayes, professor of psychology, and study co-author Jennifer Gregg.

Gregg and Hayes have published a new book based on this research: "The Diabetes Lifestyle Book: Facing Your Fears and Making Changes for a Long and Healthy Life." In it Gregg - who performed the study as her dissertation at the University - her psychologist husband Glenn Callaghan, and Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) encourage patients to acknowledge fears and negative feelings rather than suppress or deny them.

"ACT has proven effective at helping individuals with type 2 diabetes have the psychological skills needed to make lasting lifestyle changes," Hayes said. "This book offers strategies that help patients and their families enjoy quality of life irrespective of an unfortunate diagnosis."

Their research suggests that if emotions and thoughts are dealt with in an accepting way, patients have more flexible ways of keeping their blood glucose in the proper range.

The original study, published last spring in the prestigious Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, divided 81 diabetes patients into two groups: the first group attended an education-only session for diabetes management. They received information on diet, exercise and blood glucose testing.

The second group received a condensed session of the same diabetes management information and three hours of instruction in how to use acceptance, mindfulness, and values methods to cope with the emotional challenges of the disease, such as the fear of seeing bad readings come from the glucose monitoring.

Although they started at the same levels, three months after the workshop, half of the patients in the ACT condition had acceptable blood sugar levels versus only 20% of the education-only group.

The ACT group also showed significant improvements in their reported self-management skills, including exercise, nutrition, and blood glucose monitoring.

"It is important for patients to acknowledge negative feelings following diagnosis rather than suppressing those emotions," Hayes said. "Individuals who use the proven ACT techniques better cope with difficult circumstances and may be better prepared for long-term disease management."

ACT is one of a family of therapies that bring constructive, spiritual, Eastern-oriented sensibilities into Western science. The use of acceptance and mindfulness allows the mind to diminish the impact of struggle and come to a place of peace even if it is not possible to reverse physical challenges.

The American Diabetes Association reports that nearly 21 million American adults and children suffer with diabetes, a disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, the hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy.

The study and new book offers people with diabetes hope for improved disease management by suggesting that ACT training may help them cope more effectively with the psychological challenges of this chronic and life-threatening disease.

"When you start talking to people with diabetes about what they need to do to take care of themselves, pretty quickly they start feeling overwhelmed," says Gregg. "More standard forms of education don't make room for those feelings."

Hayes is also the author of "Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy," which caught fire with popular media. He was featured in Time magazine in February 2006 and in the July 2007 O, the Oprah magazine.

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