The ability to tune out distractions and negative feelings—a cognitive trait psychologists call “inhibition”—can mean less anxiety in your everyday life. And now we know that it may also protect you from developing diabetes—or help you manage diabetes if you have it.
The good news: This is one psychological trait that you can change.
That’s right—you can fight diabetes with your mind.
DISTRACTED THINKING, ANXIOUS FEELINGS…AND BLOOD SUGAR
The new research isn’t the first to show that stress and anxiety can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. But it does show precisely how it can happen…and points to effective mind-body treatments.
The key cognitive trait linked to increased diabetes risk in the new study is low “inhibition,” sometimes called “attentional control.” It’s a necessary coping skill—the ability to control your attention and behavior and ignore distracting thoughts and emotions…especially negative emotions.
People with poor inhibition tend to respond impulsively and are easily distracted by anxious thoughts. They also tend to have poor coping skills, including poor ability to respond to new challenges with flexible problem-solving. Poor coping, in turn, can increase anxiety, so it can be a vicious cycle.
One way psychologists test inhibition is to ask people to say “go” when a computer screen flashes with a red sign—and “stop” when it flashes green.
It requires tuning out the distraction of ingrained habits. People with low inhibition take longer to respond—and make more mistakes.
Researchers at several American universities hypothesized that this inhibition/anxiety connection might affect diabetes risk. So they enlisted 835 mid-life men and women (average age 57) who had already taken a battery of psychological tests to also take blood tests that measure inflammation (a key driver of diabetes) and blood sugar.
“When individuals are stressed or anxious or depressed, inflammation goes up,” says study author Kyle Murdock, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at Rice University in Houston. The inflammation marker interleukin-6 (IL-6) is also a marker for stress—and it’s also linked to higher insulin levels, which can set the stage for insulin resistance and, eventually, diabetes. The blood sugar marker was hemoglobin A1c, a measure of blood sugar over the past two or three months.
Results: After adjusting for other variables, people with low inhibition, compared to those with high inhibition, had…
- More anxiety symptoms
- Higher levels of IL-6
- Higher levels of hemoglobin A1c
- Greater incidence of type 2 diabetes
“The novel part of our study was establishing the pathway from inhibition to anxiety to inflammation to diabetes,” says Dr. Murdock. Interestingly, people in the study who scored low on other cognitive tasks—such as memory—did not have elevated levels of anxiety or inflammation or blood sugar problems. In the full statistical model, it became clear that it was exceedingly improbable that it was the blood sugar problems (or diabetes itself) that had caused inhibition or anxiety to go up. Rather, the process went the other way—inhibition led to anxiety, which led to inflammation, which damaged blood sugar control…and contributed to diabetes.
Their conclusion—low inhibition is an independent risk factor for diabetes.
Aside from contributing to an increase in inflammation, low inhibition often leads to poor lifestyle choices, too. People with poor inhibition are less likely to eat healthy foods, exercise, stick with diets and get enough sleep. So tackling this particular psychological trait can be a key to unlocking a bounty of health benefits.
HOW TO STRENGTHEN YOUR INHIBITION
Low inhibition is a psychological trait that can have its origins in childhood, so it’s not something that you can change in a snap. But you can change—and the benefits for your health and your well-being are tremendous. The first step is to recognize whether you have low inhibition, which can show up in different ways. Red flags include not being able to stop yourself from…
- Thinking excessively about something stressful
- Restricting yourself to only certain activities because of fear or anxiety
- Saying things before thinking
- Acting impulsively
- Engaging in high-risk activities
- Engaging in behaviors that you don’t want to, such as drinking too much, eating too much or smoking.
You can address these red flags using a number of techniques…
Mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy (MBSR). This can help you stop being distracted by stressful thoughts about what happened in the past or might happen in the future. In mindfulness therapy, you’re taught to keep your attention on the present. Training teaches you to detect and reduce distracting and stressful thoughts. Many therapists teach MBSR, but you can try to learn it on your own—there are many books, websites and CDs that teach it. (Seeing a professional will be much better for some people, especially those who tend to need structure imposed from the outside.)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a type of talk therapy that has been shown to be an effective treatment for many anxiety disorders—and it’s also been shown specifically to strengthen inhibition. The goal of CBT is to learn how to change some negative thought patterns and to modify how you cope with stressful situations. By reducing stress and your body’s response to it, you can more easily avoid behaviors (such as impulsive eating) that increase your risk for diabetes, says Dr. Murdock. Bonus: By reducing anxiety, you’ll reduce your physiological inflammatory responses as well.
THE ADHD CONNECTION
If distractibility and impulsiveness make you think of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you’re on the right track. While many people have low inhibition and anxiety without developing ADHD, it’s known that people with ADHD do tend to have low inhibition. They’re also more susceptible to chronic diseases. Until now, researchers assumed that those increased disease risks were related to the fact that people with ADHD are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol or overeat—but the new research suggests there may be a physiological component, too. If you’re concerned that you have ADHD, see a psychologist for a diagnosis. While stimulant drugs used to treat ADHD may strengthen inhibition, it’s worth noting that nondrug approaches, including MBSR and CBT, are effective ADHD treatments for many people.
THE BIG PICTURE
The new research on your mind and diabetes is a fascinating window into one way the mind can influence the body. It’s certainly not the only one. There are other ways that stress and anxiety can promote diabetes—and anything you can do to reduce your overall stress levels may reduce your risk for diabetes, too. For example, the ancient Chinese mind-body practice of Qigong, which gently exercises the body as it calms the mind, has been shown to reduce stress and reduce blood sugar. Exercise, so important for preventing diabetes, also reduces anxiety. For more stress-busting strategies, check out our guides to “Easy Ways to Relieve Stress” and “Drug-Free Ways to Calm Anxiety,” and to learn more about diabetes, see our guide to “Natural Ways to Manage Diabetes.”