Diabetes and Coronavirus Series (Article 1): Maintaining Mental Wellbeing during COVID-19

By Renza Scibilia

Renza Scibilia is from Melbourne, Australia and authors the blog Diabetogenic about real life with type 1 diabetes. Renza has lived with type 1 since 1998 and for the last fourteen years has used an insulin pump. She works for Diabetes Australia and is a proud member of the Diabetes Online Community (DOC). She is a diabetes consumer representative and a vocal advocate for ensuring the voice of the ‘patient’ is heard loud and clear.

The opinions presented in this blog post are those of the author and may not represent the opinions of Ascensia Diabetes Care. Ascensia have paid Renza an honorarium for her services as a contributor to this blog.

I can’t remember the exact moment that I realised that living well with diabetes meant that I needed to concentrate on my mental health as much as my blood glucose levels. It probably wasn’t a lightbulb moment, but rather a realisation over time that the idea that diabetes was simply just about numbers and clinical measurements was a very, very wrong one!

Since that time, I have been consciously aware of just how much my overall health is dependent on my emotional wellbeing. I have come to learn that being emotionally resilient – and understanding how to grow that resilience – directly translates to being able to manage my diabetes in a more rounded and effective manner. Working with a psychologist for a number of years helped me develop strategies that worked for me, often beginning with the ability to identify just when my emotional health was starting to wane and having ways to respond in a timely manner.

With this knowledge in mind, I have realised that a lot of the techniques I’ve had in place for keeping myself feeling emotionally robust have been useful with understanding and managing the COVID-19 lockdown and the new reality that was sprung on me – and the rest of the world – earlier this year.

One of the things I frequently say about diabetes is just how boring it is. Its “boring task, boring task, repeat” nature lends itself to a tedium that sometimes means keeping motivated is really tough. Let’s be honest, no one really wants to do the same monotonous and mind-numbing things over and over, especially when considered alongside the very monotonous and mind-numbing nature of diabetes.

And yet, we do. We find ways to build that momentum and motivation. We acknowledge the dreariness of it and find ways through. Sure, we also work through periods of burnout, but we hope to come through those, bouncing back, ready to get back on the horse of diabetes. Neigh!

With this in mind, I’ve wondered a number of times over the last couple of months if people with diabetes are somehow more prepared for the boredom that has come with lives sent into lockdown. I know that not everyone has found themselves in a situation where their days have started to look eerily the same, but many of us have. I’ve been flat out frantic with work, and yet the inability to work from anywhere other than home, restrictions on going for walks whenever and wherever I choose to help clear my head, and the fact that time no longer seems to mean anything, have combined and meant that each day has a new predictability I’ve never experienced.

We’re already data focused with diabetes, aren’t we? And now, everyone is fixated on COVID-19 numbers and data and graphs. It was without a blip that I added another couple of daily views to my data dashboard. Alongside measuring my glucose time in range, I was now closely monitoring graphs of increases in new diagnoses. I looked at exponential graphs with the same understanding of a monthly CGM analysis, and easily did calculations comparing countries, states and local government rates of recoveries. Numbers? We have that down pat with diabetes!

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic for me was dealing with the dismissive way that people with pre-existing conditions were discussed, along with the elderly, as being the only ones that really needed to be worried about this new virus. I moved from being annoyed to terrified whenever a newsreader or politician assured us that we had nothing to worry about… unless we were already compromised in some way. That is me, and dozens and dozens of my friends. My heart started to break as I could see those friends feeling the same anxiety and stress at the rhetoric that was so carelessly being thrown around, and the sheer inability exhibited by those commentators to understand that, in their endeavours to be reassuring, they were sending many of us down a rabbit hole of catastrophising!

But once I had recognised and named my concerns about this, and started seeing others calling it out – and calling it out myself – I saw it for what it was. Typical human nature of cocooning ourselves into the safety of protection. I could see the relief wash over many who were not in those high-risk groups; those that have the privilege of safety in their health.

And those of us living with chronic conditions set about to doing all we could to make ourselves safe too. We minimised our exposure to others, many of us putting restrictions on our movements and public outings before they were required.

Of course, that hasn’t been the case for everyone. There are frontline and essential workers who have still been required to show up at their place of employment, even those with the added risk of living with diabetes. I have been watching them, admiring their resilience, understanding their fear, and knowing that they do what they always do – get on with things despite diabetes. Because there isn’t a choice.

So here we are, a couple of months in. I’m writing this sitting on the veranda of my house desperate to catch some of the last warm rays of sunshine before the cold weather sets in down here in Australia. And it almost feels perfectly normal that I would be working on a weekday with my MacBook balanced on my knee, a cup of tea beside me, puppy at my feet and my kid and husband inside going about their daily working or schooling day. We’ve been as agile as possible to adapt to this new normal, dancing around each other and offering – and demanding – space to do what we need to do.

I guess I’ll just keep going as I have been – wondering when this will be over, and my usual life of getting on planes and flying around the world for work will resume. And when diabetes is the only thing that occupies that part of my mind that deals with health and wellbeing – not a global pandemic that has sent us all slightly spinning as we’ve tried to somehow… any way possible… make sense of it all.


Five Top Tips for Diabetes Emotional Wellbeing during COVID-19

  1. Curate your social media feeds! You don’t need to see doom and gloom constantly. Get rid of anything that insists you should be feeling a certain way, or that makes you want to bury your head in a pillow for the foreseeable future.
  2. Stay connected to your tribe. Link in with those with diabetes who you can lean on and support.
  3. If you can, get some fresh air. I’ve found that going for short walks around our neighbourhood and looking at flowers along fence lines has been a really useful distraction. I know that there are different restrictions about exercise in different places around the world, but even stepping outside into the sunshine or pouring rain is a help.
  4. Find something that is not related to COVID-19 or diabetes to focus on. I’ve seen some fierce family Scrabble competitions on the go, amazing veggie patches being started, impressive jigsaws being completed on kitchen tables, and knitting and crocheting that is making me wish that I had the smallest ability to be crafty! For me, it’s been cooking and baking that has provided some awesome distraction – and delicious food.
  5. Be kind to yourself. These are not normal times, so your diabetes management is likely to look a little different. Don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure to manage your diabetes in a particular way. Do what you can and acknowledge how great it is that you’ve done that.


Download PDF version of the top tips here