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Category: The Psychology of Diabetes

Couple in BedEncountering problems with sexual response is a common experience for both men and women with diabetes. Not only can diabetes affect your physical functioning, there can also be psychological factors that interfere with a full and rewarding sex life. Problems with sexual function can be very distressing and affect the quality of your life as well as your relationships. Although help is available, many people (both with and without diabetes) find sexual difficulties an embarrassing topic to talk about in the context of a health appointment, and therefore refrain from being open with their doctors or nurses about their difficulties. This article will help you to become more familiar with the different ways your sexual responses may be affected, give you strategies to help you tackle the psychological difficulties that might be getting in your way, and empower you to talk to your doctor or nurse about how they can help you.

Male Sexual Problems

Erectile dysfunction (also known as impotence) means you are not able to obtain or keep an erection long enough for sexual intercourse. An erection is caused by the flow of blood into the penis and the blocking of the small blood vessels, making the penis hard. In one study more than 50% of males with diabetes admitted difficulties with sexual function, rising to more than 75% for men over the age of 70. To put this into context, about 1 in 10 men over 40 years old have erectile dysfunction, whether they have diabetes or not. Many factors along with diabetes can contribute to difficulties with sexual response. These include:

  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Smoking.
  • Taking illegal drugs.
  • Medications such as certain antidepressants.
  • Injury to the penis.
  • Damage to the spinal cord.
  • Nerve damage caused by operations to the bladder, bowel, or prostate gland.
  • Poor blood supply to the penis due to blockage of the artery caused by peripheral arterial disease.
  • Producing less testosterone than your body needs.
  • High blood pressure.

Female Sexual Problems

Women with diabetes are also at risk from difficulties with sexual response, and although these are visually not as obvious as for men, they are just as upsetting and difficult to contend with.

Physical problems are:

  • Dry vagina caused by high blood glucose levels.
  • Greater proneness to yeast infections, making sexual intercourse uncomfortable.
  • Loss of skin sensation around the vagina area, reducing the pleasure experienced.

In addition to physical explanations for sexual difficulties, there are also emotional reasons why you may be encountering problems relating sexually to your partner. These affect both men and women. Some of these are:

  • Stress.
  • Depression and low mood.
  • Anxiety and worry.
  • Conflict with your partner.
  • Issues regarding how sex is viewed in your religion or culture.
  • Homosexuality.
  • Bereavement.
  • Illness or ill health.
  • Being in an accident.
  • Previous abuse.
  • Infertility.
  • Disability.

Gain Support for the Physical Side of Sex

The first step is to have a physical examination by your General Practioner or healthcare team, and take advantage of medical treatments or aids they recommend to you. For men with diabetes, Viagra and similar prescription medications can be incredibly helpful and they have no adverse impact on diabetes control. Do not buy any medicines to treat erectile dysfunction over the Internet. It may seem appealing as you can get help anonymously without having to approach a potentially embarrassing topic at clinic, but there is no guarantee what you are buying is genuine. It is also important your healthcare team is aware of all the medications you are taking.

Other general guidelines for improving sexual response for both men and women are:

  • Weight loss, smoking cessation, and cutting down on alcohol intake.
  • Improving glucose control or changing some of your medicines. If the sexual difficulty coincided with a sudden worsening of your glucose control or with starting a different drug, it is important to look at these factors.

It is natural to feel embarrassment about discussing sexual problems with healthcare professionals. Remember, they have heard similar problems before and will not be fazed by them. Indeed, they will respect you are able to be open about it and seek help. Remember, the first line will be the most challenging; once that is done, the clinician will steer the conversation for you. Some ideas for conversation starters are in the box below.

Conversation Starters for Discussing Sexual Problems

  • I’m having problems in bed.
  • I’m struggling with sex/my sex life.
  • My [penis, ‘equipment’, etc.] isn’t working as it should.
  • I’ve got something I’m a bit embarrassed to mention …. (The clinician may pre-empt what you are about to say.)
  • I was hoping you might be able to help me with this problem I am having.
  • I think I’ve got ED/erectile dysfunction.
  • I can’t get a hard-on.

How to Manage the Emotional Impact of Sexual Difficulties

If your healthcare team has checked you out and there are no obvious physical problems, then shifting focus to psychological strategies can be helpful. Enjoyment of sex goes beyond the act of intercourse that culminates in an orgasm. Enjoyment of the sexual experience involves a whole range of factors, including your experiences of sex, your appearance, and your confidence physically and sexually, and so on. Early traumatic experiences involving sex and negative beliefs about sex inherited from family values and attitudes can hinder the sexual experience.

I’ve worked with many people with diabetes who had resigned themselves to not having the sexual relationship they really wanted; however, by working together, we figured out how they relate to sex and what’s getting in the way of them having a fulfilled sexual relationship. I have a five-step programme (which works just as well over the phone/by Skype as in person) for tackling the emotional side of sexual difficulties and would love to support you (and/or you and your partner) with finding freedom in your sexual relationship. If you are currently struggling with sexual difficulties (or any other emotional issue related to your diabetes), remember you can take advantage of a totally free “Diabetes Clarity Session” — a 30-minute telephone/Skype call with myself or a member of my team to get clear on a plan for getting better. I really want to do all I can to help you achieve your best health and wellbeing this year.

You may use this article on your website, or for your own e-zine; however, there's one thing you MUST include: Dr. Jen Nash is a Clinical Psychologist chartered with the British Psychological Society. Dr. Jen helps her clients find solutions with simple and highly-effective psychological strategies to gain freedom from the frustration and stress of living with diabetes. To sign up for her free Diabetes Diary, visit www.PositiveDiabetes.com.

TestingWhat turns difficulties with food into an eating disorder? Put simply, an eating disorder is diagnosed if your attitude towards food causes you to change your eating habits and behaviours in a way that may cause damage to your health. The most common eating disorders are:

Anorexia Nervosa: when someone tries to keep their weight as low as possible, for example by starving themselves or exercising excessively.

Bulimia Nervosa: when someone binge-eats and then tries to control their weight by deliberately being sick or using laxatives (medication to help empty the bowels), diuretics and enemas.

Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS): an eating disorder that does not meet the criteria for any specific eating disorder. This includes binge eating disorder, when someone feels compelled to overeat but doesn’t use any compensatory behaviours (such as self-induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics or enemas).

One type of eating disorder not otherwise specified that is specific to people with diabetes that use insulin is the reduction or omission of insulin. This behaviour is often referred to as ‘diabulimia’ in the media, although most health professionals avoid this term because it is confusing on many fronts. For instance, bulimia involves making yourself sick, which many individuals with diabetes who manipulate insulin do not do. EDNOS-DMT1 (Diabetes Mellitus Type 1) is a preferable term, although the condition is not clinically recognized yet. With insulin omission, whether by decreasing, delaying, or completely omitting prescribed insulin doses, a person with diabetes can induce hyperglycaemia and rapidly lose calories in the urine in the form of glucose.

Insulin manipulation can be done in quite a secretive way, so it often goes undetected by healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, it can also easily be misunderstood and the patient labelled ‘non-compliant’ with treatment. However, individuals who are manipulating their insulin are struggling with an eating disorder.

Signs to Look Out for That May Suggest Insulin Omission

  • Recurrent episodes of Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA)/ Hyperglycaemia.
  • High HbA1c.
  • Frequent hospitalizations for poor blood sugar control.
  • Delay in puberty or sexual maturation, or irregular periods.
  • Frequent trips to the toilet.
  • Frequent episodes of thrush/urine infections.
  • Nausea and stomach cramps.
  • Loss of appetite/eating more and losing weight.
  • Drinking an abnormal amount of fluids.
  • Delayed healing from infections/ bruises.
  • Easy bruising.
  • Dehydration and dry skin.
  • Dental problems.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Severe fluctuations in weight.
  • Fractures/bone weakness.
  • Anaemia and other deficiencies.
  • Early onset of diabetic complications, particularly neuropathy, retinopathy, gastroperisis, and nephropathy.
  • Anxiety/distress over being weighed at appointments.
  • Fear of hypoglycaemia.
  • Fear of injecting/extreme distress at injecting.
  • Injecting in private/out of view.
  • Avoidance of diabetes-related health appointments.
  • Lack of BS testing/reluctance to test.

Causes of Eating Disorders

Causes of eating disorders are complex, and there is rarely one specific cause. Rather, as with other emotional difficulties there are biopsychosocial reasons for their development and continuation. The reasons that disordered eating may develop in the general population (i.e. non diabetes-specific reasons) are:

Biological

  • Having a family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse.
  • Being female (although men are also increasingly vulnerable and do also develop eating disorders).
  • Being Overweight.
  • Experiencing early puberty compared to peers.

Psychological

  • Being overly concerned with being slim, particularly if combined with pressure to be slim from society or for a job (which can happen, for example to ballet dancers, models, or athletes).
  • Certain characteristics, for example having an obsessive personality, an anxiety disorder or low self-esteem, or being a perfectionist.
  • Dietary restraint and dieting.

Social

  • Being criticized for one’s eating habits, body shape, or weight.
  • Particular experiences, such as sexual or emotional abuse, or the death of someone special.
  • Difficult relationships with family members or friends.
  • Stressful situations, for example problems at work, school, or university.
  • Disturbed family functioning.
  • Disturbed parental eating attitudes.
  • Peer and cultural influences.

Eating disorders are often blamed on the social pressure to be thin. However, although this can be a contributing factor for some individuals, the causes are usually more complex. Many people do feel a pressure to be slim but do not go on to develop an eating disorder.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder it is not your fault. You are likely to have difficulty in managing and regulating your emotions, and a distorted view of your own body image. You are concerned about your body weight and shape and are likely to believe that you are overweight when you are actually at a normal or low weight. You probably fear gaining weight or becoming fat, and have a concerned attitude towards food, calories, and eating. Thoughts about food, weight, and shape are likely to be on your mind much of the time, and your success in controlling your eating behaviour and weight can become a main way you feel good about yourself.

Considerable evidence has also accumulated to suggest that living with type 1 diabetes in itself is a risk factor for disturbed eating behaviour and eating disorders (Nielsen, 2002). Eating disorders have been found to be twice as common in teenage girls with type 1 diabetes as in their peers without diabetes (Colton, 2009). It is also argued that the diabetes treatment goals can ‘teach’ or intensify some of the vulnerability to an eating disorders mindset (Goebel-Fabbri, 2009).

Diabetes management increases the focus on controlled food intake, and can be experienced as restrictive. This means you are following an eating plan which is not completely dependent on responding to your own internal cues for hunger and fullness. This results in these cues becoming less reliable. If you under eat, you are likely to feel deprived, which can trigger overeating and binge eating episodes. Knowing that bingeing is not good for your health or weight, you may then intensify your efforts to control your food intake and weight, getting trapped in a cycle of dieting, further binge eating, and weight control behaviour.

Not only this, but at puberty, when weight and shape concerns intensify, diabetes can become more difficult to manage due to hormonal changes and resulting insulin resistance. Diabetes then may constitute a pathway of risk for the development of disturbed eating behaviour.

Insulin Manipulation or Omission

Insulin manipulation is the most common method of purging in girls with type 1 diabetes and becomes progressively more common through the teen years. This behaviour is reported by 2% of pre-teen girls, 11–15% of girls in the mid-teen years and 30–39% of those in the late teenage and early adult years (Colton, 2009).

The reason most frequently cited by women with type 1 diabetes for deliberate insulin omission is weight control. However, other motivating factors may include:

  • Fear of hypoglycaemia.
  • Denial of having diabetes.
  • Embarrassment about blood glucose testing or insulin administration in front of others.
  • Desire to have a break from diabetes management.
  • Fear of needles.
  • Secondary weight gain.

Overcoming Insulin Omission and Other Eating Disorders

I have a 10-step programme for breaking free of these patterns of behaviour.

  1. Get ready to change.
  2. Keep a diary.
  3. Develop an insulin/food plan.
  4. Reduce binge eating.
  5. Reduce vomiting/laxative use.
  6. Examine your thinking.
  7. Problem-solve.
  8. Expect challenges.
  9. Increase self-esteem.
  10. Speak up.

I’d love to support you in working through the 10 steps of this programme. If you are currently struggling with insulin omission (or any other emotional issue related to your diabetes), remember you can take advantage of a totally free “Diabetes Clarity Session”  — a 30-minute telephone call with me or a member of my team to get clear on a plan for getting better. I really want to do all I can to help you achieve your best health and wellbeing this year.

You may use this article on your website, or for your own e-zine; however, there's one thing you MUST include: Dr. Jen Nash is a Clinical Psychologist chartered with the British Psychological Society. Dr. Jen helps her clients find solutions with simple and highly-effective psychological strategies to gain freedom from the frustration and stress of living with diabetes. To sign up for her free Diabetes Diary, visit www.PositiveDiabetes.com.

Eating a Hot DogDo you ever find yourself feeling down, unhappy, or restless, and before you know it, you are eating something you hadn’t planned to? If so, you’re not alone. “Emotional eating” or “comfort eating” is really common, both for people with and without diabetes. As an attempt to feel better (temporarily at least) it’s okay to use food like this some of the time. However, when food starts to feel like it controls you, rather than you being in control of food, and particularly if you have weight to lose, it can be helpful to consider your eating behaviour from a different angle. What is your ‘relationship’ with food? This article will help you understand the way you relate to food and diabetes weight loss is not just a simple formula of “eat less and move more”. There are numerous reasons why the relationship you have with food may be complex and these can be divided into biological, psychological, and social factors.

Biologically, we are fighting against our evolutionary history. Our bodies have evolved to store food in times of plenty to sustain us in times of scarcity and this is at odds with our modern day lives in which food is more than abundant. Our bodies simply haven’t caught up with our contemporary western world.

Psychologically, the connection between emotion and food is one that is established from birth, from the very first time you cried and your mother comforted you with milk. As you grew up, you may have been given sweets to cheer you up after the upset of hurting yourself, or been cooked your favourite dinner when you’d fallen out with a friend. Food is not just a fuel; it has been conditioned as a soother of emotions for as long as you can remember. So now when you’ve had an argument with your partner, or a bad day at work, there can be an impulse to reach for food as a way of calming, distracting, or comforting yourself.

Further, being able to limit food intake to maintain a socially desirable slim body shape is valued in today’s western societies; therefore, eating choices aren’t just made on nutritional content or taste but are complicated by their connection to personal sense of self-worth.

Socially, shared eating experiences are a way of bonding, celebrating, and showing love within our families and communities. Births, deaths, marriages, and all occasions in between are marked by food. Family members may offer food (and keep offering, long after we’ve said no thank you!) as a substitute when it is difficult for them to express love through a hug or saying “I love you”.

So fast forward to the diagnosis of diabetes and you are suddenly required to sharply focus on food and be thoughtful about changing or limiting previously enjoyed food choices. Your doctor, nurse, and dietician will tell you healthy eating is one of the crucial elements of optimal diabetes control; but given the link between food and emotions, it’s hardly surprising that encouragement by healthcare professionals to cut down on fatty sugary food is sometimes difficult to implement.

You know in your head what you should be doing, but it’s hard to break away from the conditioning and pattern of food as an instant route to pleasure, distraction and satisfaction.

However this pattern can be changed. The goal is to reach a place in which you can make a decision about whether or not to eat when you are feeling emotional, rather than it just being an automatic response. An important point to remember is that everyone — of every shape and size — can use food to deal with his or her emotions, and occasionally it can be fine to use food in this way. The danger is when food becomes the only way to deal with emotions. The next article in this series will examine strategies to help you gain control over your eating, the central role of your thoughts in eating behaviour, and how authentic emotional expression can help.

You may use this article on your website, or for your own e-zine; however, there's one thing you MUST include: Dr. Jen Nash is a Clinical Psychologist chartered with the British Psychological Society. Dr. Jen helps her clients find solutions with simple and highly-effective psychological strategies to gain freedom from the frustration and stress of living with diabetes. To sign up for her free Diabetes Diary, visit www.PositiveDiabetes.com.

Health Professional Medical ClipboardAs we discussed last time, everyone’s experience of hypoglycemia is unique. This week’s article is my top five strategies for helping you to overcome your difficulties with hypoglycemia.

  1. Tell your healthcare team.

    If you frequently experience low blood glucose levels, the first thing that may be needed is a change to your diabetes regime — medication type, the dosage, or the timing of medication and/or food. Your doctor will be able to help with this.

    Also, if you are experiencing less warning signs than previously, there are ways of recovering these, through avoiding all hypos for as little as a few weeks. This needs careful planning to avoid the opposite problem of overly high blood glucose levels, but is very possible with guidance.

  2. Immediately before checking your blood glucose, guess what the number will be.

    Increase your confidence in your hypoglycemia awareness by estimating what yours is before you actually test. Write down what your guess is, then test and write down the actual result. If you often guess incorrectly, then use the following strategies to help you.

  3. Learn your unique ‘alarm bells’ that are your own warning signs of hypos.

    Everyone has their own individual ‘alarm bells’ that is their body’s way of telling them that they are low. Keep track of what you notice going on for you when you have a hypo (obviously best thought about after you have recovered from one!). Is it a physical symptom (heart racing, tingling in a certain part of your body, sweating, shaking, or heart palpitations), or a change in your mood or in your ability to think clearly?

  4. Find out what works best for treating your hypoglycemia.

    Experiment! Some people like to try chocolate, but because of the high fat content, it can be slow to raise blood glucose levels. Fast acting sugars contained in glucose tablets and glucose drinks can act more quickly. There’s nothing worse than eating a snack and it not working, so try a variety of foods and see what works best for you. Once you’ve found what works best for you, always carry some of this with you.

  5. If you tend to think you are having reactions, even when you are not, try a breathing exercise.

    If you think you may get yourself into the anxiety cycle described earlier, then a quick relaxation exercise can help control your panic, so you can discover whether you are experiencing hypoglycemia.

    Try the following quick exercise:

    • Sit comfortably in a chair.
    • Close your eyes.
    • Take a slow, deep breath in so your lungs are full.
    • Hold this breath for the count of 3 seconds.
    • Breathe out as fully as possible for a count of 5 seconds.
    • Repeat this sequence for two more breaths.
    • Open your eyes and notice any subtle differences in how you feel, in your body and your mind.
    • With a bit of practice, over time, you will be able to notice a feeling of relaxation.
    • Once you feel comfortable with the technique, begin to practice this when you are having hypoglycemic symptoms that you are not sure whether or not are real.
    • If they weaken, it is likely it is a false alarm, but in the beginning always test your blood glucose level to see if you are correct.
    • With frequent practice, over time, you can expect the false alarms to occur less frequently.

You may use this article on your website, or for your own e-zine; however, there’s one thing you MUST include: Dr. Jen Nash is a Clinical Psychologist registered with the British Psychological Society. Dr. Jen helps her clients find solutions with simple and highly-effective psychological strategies to gain freedom from the frustration and stress of living with diabetes. To sign up for her free Diabetes Diary, visit www.PositiveDiabetes.com.

Many people with diabetes are anxious or worry a lot about hypoglycemia. In one study, 25% of people with diabetes reported anxiety about hypoglycaemia is a serious problem for them.

Hypoglycemia, or a ‘hypo’ as it is commonly known, is a frequent occurrence among many people with diabetes, both for those with type 1 and type 2.

So why do people worry about hypoglycemia, particularly when, in most cases, they can be treated with relative speed and ease by eating a sugary snack? Well, it’s often because the effects of a hypo can be frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable, unpleasant and, in their worst cases, fatal.

Getting sweaty, having slurred speech, shaking uncontrollably, or being confused may not seem too bad in the whole scheme of things, but having them occur in a job interview or important work meeting, whilst driving home at night, or on a romantic date may not be so pleasant!

Having just one episode of hypoglycemia that was unpleasant can lead to increased anxiety of it happening again.

This can lead to other behaviours, which may lead to further difficulties with managing diabetes.

  • Running blood sugars high to avoid hypoglycemia.
  • Eating more than needed to keep blood glucose levels elevated.
  • Restricting activities such as driving, exercising, travelling on public transport etc.

In addition to a particularly bad experience of hypoglycemia, three further factors may contribute to excessive worry.

  • You may be experiencing a weakened ability to feel the warning signs of hypoglycemia.
  • The warning signs of hypoglycemia, such as sweating and shaking, occur because of the associated release of the body’s stress related hormones, epinephrine. However, for some people with diabetes, their warning signs are less obvious, and so by the time they do notice the problem, their blood glucose level has dropped so low that taking reparative action becomes even harder. This is known as reduced hypo awareness.
  • You may not be able to distinguish the feelings of hypoglycemia from the feelings of fear.

Many symptoms of hypoglycemia, such as sweatiness or an increased heart rate are the same as signs you would experience if you were fearful. This may lead to a spiral of confusion.

  • You may notice your heart beating a little faster.
  • You may think, “This could be hypoglycemia”.
  • This makes you nervous, so your heart therefore beats even faster.
  • Thinking, “Oh no, this is a symptom of hypoglycemia”.
  • You feel even more nervous and reach for a snack to raise your blood sugar levels.

When actually what you really were experiencing was nervousness! Next issue, I’ll teach you my top five strategies for helping you overcome your difficulties with hypoglycemia. In the meantime, if you are in any doubt, always test your blood glucose levels. To share your experiences and gain support, do visit us on Facebook, we’d love to hear from you!

You may use this article on your website, or for your own e-zine; however, there’s one thing you MUST include: Dr. Jen Nash is a Clinical Psychologist registered with the British Psychological Society. Dr. Jen helps her clients find solutions with simple and highly-effective psychological strategies to gain freedom from the frustration and stress of living with diabetes. To sign up for her free Diabetes Diary, visit www.PositiveDiabetes.com.