11/23/2013 11:11 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Gratitude for Feeling Crappy

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

I often don't feel well due to stress hormones, which act up partly because I have Type 1 diabetes. But I try to feel grateful when that happens.

Kelly McGonigal makes a persuasive case for developing a positive attitude about stress because it prepares our bodies to take on challenges. But we should be thankful for the "fight or flight" hormones not just because they warn us to flee from bears or gear us up to make effective sales presentations; they also help to prevent low blood sugar and ensure that we have the energy we need to function.

As a person with diabetes, I have more reasons than most people to feel grateful for those hormones. If I inject too much insulin and or don't eat enough, I am at risk for hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can be a dangerous problem.

The release of stress hormones -- including epinepherine and norepinephrine -- are among the body's various defense mechanisms that spring into action when blood sugar gets too low. Among other things, they trigger weakness, palpitations, blurred vision and other symptoms that make us feel crappy. These warning signals are supposed to make us aware that we need to get off our butts and ingest something sweet. If people with diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2) don't recognize or are unaware of these signals, we can start behaving irrationally and, eventually, lapse into seizures or comas.

According to Dr. Philip Cryer, an expert on this problem, the average Type 1 diabetic "suffers two episodes of symptomatic hypoglycemia per week... He or she suffers one or more episodes of severe, temporarily disabling hypoglycemia.. per year." I've had this disease for 51 years, so you do the math if you want to understand why staving off low blood sugar has been so important to me.

Yet, for most of my life, I was not happy when my body warned me that my blood sugar was dangerously low. I did not enjoy feeling crappy. The sweaty weakness and wooziness seemed like just another set of burdens that my unruly metabolism was inflicting on me. Too often these symptoms also fed into a sense of failure, of losing a battle in the ongoing war with my rebellious metabolism, a feeling that is common among people with diabetes. Moreover, like many people with this condition -and other chronic diseases that require constant vigilance--too often I've thought of my body as an "enemy agent that I was forced to outthink and outwit," as I noted here. And when I didn't feel well for any reason --including stress hormones--the entire universe could seem malevolent.

But recently, after reading more about the biochemistry of diabetes and thinking hard about its impact on my life, I vowed to feel grateful when my stress hormones signaled low blood sugar, to think positively, just as McGonigal recommends in other stressful situations.

Now I try to remember to tell myself that the hormones are rushing to my rescue, helping to stave off the kind of nutty and embarrassing antics that I've occasionally displayed -- like the time, early in my relationship with my wife-to-be, when I got on my knees and bayed like wolf, or the time -- before that! -- when I berated and insulted a woman I wanted to sleep with before I lost consciousness.

This attitude has helped me to feel more relaxed and less stressed out when confronting the conundrum that faces people with diabetes: keeping the blood sugar as close to normal as possible lowers the risk of terrible diabetic complications, like blindness or kidney disease. Yet, the more tightly we control blood sugar, the more likely we are to experience hypoglycemia.

As a lifelong curmudgeon, gratitude has never come easily to me. And I am not sure if thinking more positively about the tell tale, stressful signs of low blood sugar has the kinds of physiological benefits that McGonigal cites. But I do know that there is a growing body of evidence that deliberately cultivating gratitude makes people happier and healthier, and that this approach to life is catching on among people with all kinds of chronic diseases. And I also know that trying to frame the experience of hypoglycemia differently, to treat the actions of stress hormones as blessings instead of curses, has -- much to my surprise and delight -- made the universe seem more friendly.

Dan Fleshler, who has lived with Type 1 diabetes since 1962, blogs about the lessons and mysteries of the disease @ The Insulin Chronicles.

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