Living and Thriving with Diabetes: An Educator’s Journey to Mindfulness


November 5, 2018

living with diabetes |

In celebration of National Diabetes Awareness Month, eMindful has profiled Heather Nielsen, the developer of our diabetes program, on her experience with the condition, and how she currently helps people with diabetes live healthier lifestyles through mindfulness.

“I always thought I was healthy.”

This can’t be. Those were Heather Nielsen’s thoughts when she learned that she had type-1 diabetes.

None of it made any sense. Her entire life was centered on wellness. She’d come from a vibrant family of jogging enthusiasts, was raised to be empowered to care for her body and was in the best shape of her adult life. She understood what a healthy life looked like.

So how was it, in her mid-twenties — and in optimal health — that she had become one of the 100 million Americans living with diabetes and prediabetes?

“I’d always thought that I was healthy, but that news indicated that there was something very wrong with my body,” said Nielsen, an elementary school teacher at the time of her diagnosis. “The news changed the trajectory of my career and life.”

Mindfulness and Diabetes

Nielsen was determined to live her very best life with the condition. Soon after her diagnosis, she joined the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute for Diabetes as a peer diabetes educator. The institute blended world-class medical care with robust diabetes education. It was there that Nielsen, as she trained, learned that one in five average weight adults are at-risk to develop type-2 diabetes — a fact that challenged the notion that only the overweight or obese were affected.

She also discovered mindfulness, then an emerging field in psychology, through the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course.

“That course changed my life,” Nielsen reflected. “I’d always been a spiritual person, and I’d studied psychology, but it amazed me that being mindful could help with my diabetes.”

In 2002, medical advances in diabetes were trending upward, but very little in emotional and psychological care was available for people struggling with diabetes. For Nielsen, that time was challenging and lonely not only because of her diagnosis, but also the changes that she had made in her lifestyle, since managing type 1 diabetes involves numerous daily blood sugar checks, insulin injections, and near-constant attention.

“There’s a lot of failure in diabetes because your numbers are your goal, which can be affected by everything that you do: what you eat, what you don’t eat, how much you exercise — or don’t,” she said. “There were many overwhelming variables.”

Through practicing mindfulness and experiencing MBSR, Heather realized the extent that her anxiety was consuming her.  “Through my struggles finding peace and balance, it became my professional mission to help other people living with diabetes to discover these tools,” she said.

Learning to Befriend the Body

At Whittier, Nielsen confronted more than just diabetes, but also her emotions. She was “angry” at her body because of her diagnosis and, whenever she’d have poor glucose readings, she’d be too judgmental over her actions.

Through mindfulness, she discovered that unhealthy thought patterns and emotional reactions could increase cortisol in our bodies to combat stress — which can throw off glucose readings.

“The mindfulness courses helped me to confront my thoughts, limit stress, and listen to my body,” said Nielsen.

Mindfulness helped Nielsen to reconnect with the physiological messages her body was sending, and to be more compassionate about those messages. “I began to ‘befriend’ my body and was kinder to myself,” she said. “Being mindful helped me understand that I had a choice in how to respond to my circumstances — like out-of-range glucose readings, for example — instead of just reacting out of frustration or judgment.”

Through the stress-reducing practices of mindfulness, Nielsen unlearned those unhealthy thought patterns and the pursuit for perfection in her diabetes lifestyle. “Negative talk and stress only confuse our bodies, which can result in elevated blood sugar and too much insulin intake.”

Living with Diabetes Stat
Icon credit of the International Diabetes Federation

Partnering with eMindful to Change Lives

Six years later, Nielsen’s journey to help others live with diabetes took her to great lengths: From moving to Oregon to work as a wellness coordinator, strategizing to introduce mindfulness to her community clinic, then collaborating with her network to create diabetes and mindfulness classes.

Then she was connected to eMindful — one of the first companies to offer a diabetes-focused mindfulness program. In collaboration with the organization, Heather reworked the course.

“Instead of being so educational based, which was what you’d normally get in the doctor’s office, people needed the mindfulness practice,” said Nielsen, who consulted the findings of the DAWN study — one of the only psycho-social research studies on diabetes — as she rebuilt her course.

Together, the union yielded the live, four-hour Better Living with Diabetes” program, one of the first programs of its kind. The immersive course is guided by world-class mindfulness experts who share a comprehensive approach to managing diabetes, such as:

  • Learn practical methods to overcome the daily symptoms of diabetes
  • Reduce anxiety with exercises on the mind-body approach
  • Leverage mindfulness to manage thoughts and feelings
  • Retrain your natural response to challenging circumstances

Participants emerge from the course with an empowered sense of mindfulness and greater self-care strategies for diabetes. It’s a level of immersion that Nielsen says could be a pathway to a healthier, happier future for millions of people.

“I’d like for my course to be an offering in medical clinics and used to train diabetes educators,” she said. “Educators need to have a basic language around compassion and mindfulness, which they can bring it to their patients. My goal is to connect mindfulness to the normal standards of care, and have it be accessible to anyone that can benefit from it, just like I did.”

And for those out there living with the daily battle of diabetes? Heather has some advice: “We all need peace. Recognize and celebrate your successes, no matter how big or small. Focus on your strengths. Take time to calm down and feel good about your progress. Diabetes doesn’t have to run your life. Mindful awareness can bring you that peace each day.”

Mindful Approach for Living with Diabetes

Learn more about our online Better Living with Diabetes program. Our next cohort starts soon, share this article with a friend or loved one who could benefit from a more mindful approach to living with the disease.

Save 20% on our upcoming program use code diabetes20 at checkout.


100 million Americans living with diabetes and prediabetes

One in five average weight adults are at-risk to develop type-2 diabetes 

DAWN Study