Diabetes burnout describes a feeling of physical and emotional exhaustion due to the demands of living with and managing diabetes.

People experiencing diabetes burnout may feel unmotivated to manage their diabetes. This can cause their glucose levels to rise, placing them at greater risk of hyperglycemia.

Although diabetes burnout has similarities with diabetes distress and depression, it is an experience in its own right with its own symptoms.

In this article, we will explore diabetes burnout in more detail and describe how it differs from diabetes distress and depression.

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Diabetes is a demanding condition that often requires a person to engage in strict self-management and an extensive medicinal regime. It is, therefore, unsurprising that people living with diabetes may feel emotionally and mentally drained.

Diabetes burnout refers to a state of feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and disillusioned stemming from living with and managing diabetes.

Although people may experience diabetes burnout slightly differently from each other, it typically involves a person feeling that they are unable to cope with their diabetes management.

As a result, people with diabetes burnout may disengage from their diabetes care.

A person experiencing diabetes burnout may demonstrate the following signs and symptoms:

  • feeling unable to cope with diabetes
  • feeling powerless
  • feeling detached from oneself
  • detaching oneself from social support and healthcare systems
  • feeling overwhelmed by diabetes management
  • missing or skipping medication, such as insulin
  • not monitoring glucose levels as frequently
  • not monitoring eating habits
  • not engaging in exercise
  • ignoring or trying to forget about diabetes

Diabetes distress is the negative emotional experience of living with and managing diabetes.

Some research suggests that 1 in 4 people living with type 1 diabetes, 1 in 5 people living with insulin-treated type 2 diabetes, and 1 in 6 people with noninsulin-treated diabetes experience elevated levels of diabetes distress.

A 2020 study exploring how people living with diabetes perceive diabetes distress and diabetes burnout notes that these individuals view them as separate but closely linked experiences.

As such, there are a number of similarities between the two concepts. This includes feelings of:

  • powerlessness to manage diabetes
  • anger towards diabetes and its management
  • being burned-out
  • being overwhelmed
  • frustration

If a person experiences high levels of diabetes distress for an extended period, it may develop into diabetes burnout

Depression is a mental health condition in which a person experiences a constant period of low mood, which impairs daily functioning.

Older research suggests that the prevalence of depression is three times higher in those living with type 1 diabetes and two times higher in those living with type 2 diabetes than in the general population.

Little research exists regarding how diabetes burnout specifically differs from depression. However, many reports distinguish diabetes distress from depression.

Where diabetes burnout may stem from an extended period of diabetes distress, the research exploring diabetes distress and depression may be appropriate to explain the differences between diabetes burnout and depression.

Firstly, diabetes distress, and likely diabetes burnout, are specific to the context of living with diabetes. Therefore, the feelings that come with diabetes distress and diabetes burnout may not necessarily manifest in other parts of a person’s life.

On the other hand, the diagnostic criteria for depression describe it as a general emotional state.

Another potential difference between diabetes burnout and depression is how they may impact A1C levels.

Research exploring diabetes distress consistently shows that elevated levels can negatively impact self-management behaviors, in turn leading to an increase in A1C levels. A 2021 study also suggests this may be the case for people experiencing diabetes burnout.

The association between depression, self-management, and A1C is less clear. However, studies claim no association exists. Consequently, the difference in the way depression impacts a person living with diabetes in comparison to diabetes distress and diabetes burnout implies they are distinct concepts.

There are a number of reasons why a person may experience diabetes burnout. A 2021 study suggests that the following may contribute:

  • Prolonged diabetes distress: People living with diabetes must make a multitude of daily health decisions. The mental load of having to be constantly considerate of a chronic condition can become exhausting for people.
  • Unrealistic treatment goals: If a person feels like they are regularly missing their target A1C or other treatment goals, this may instill a sense of failure or inadequacy.
  • Treatment challenges: A person living with diabetes may experience challenges with their treatment — for example, complications, accessing the right type and amount of medication, problems with insurance plans, hypoglycemia, and hyperglycemia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that it can be helpful for a person experiencing diabetes burnout to consider the following:

  • Involve the health care team: Whether that be a person’s primary doctor, consultant, optometrist, or nurse, these professionals are there to help. As well as reminding a person of the progress made with their diabetes management, they can also help with new strategies in managing diabetes.
  • Remember that perfection is impossible: Diabetes can be an unpredictable condition, and this can make management difficult. When it comes to treatment goals, a person should try and break them down into small steps. For example, instead of aiming for a specific target A1C range, a person can focus on lowering their A1C by 1%.
  • Lean on the diabetes community: Living with diabetes and diabetes burnout may feel isolating. There are a number of diabetes forums and support groups where people share similar experiences. These supportive environments can create a place for people to feel heard and share advice.

In addition to these recommendations, a person may also wish to consider changing their language and how they discuss the condition. For example, instead of referring to glucose levels as good or bad, they can describe them as high or low.

Additionally, people can seek support from their friends and family. It can be difficult to manage diabetes, and leaning on close acquaintances may help. For example, a person can ask a family member to pick up a prescription or to attend a medical appointment with them.

Research suggests that higher levels of social support may help lower emotional distress in people living with diabetes. A person looking to support someone with diabetes burnout can consider:

  • letting them share concerns without being judgmental
  • asking the person what they need in terms of support
  • acknowledging and validating the person’s feelings
  • being empathetic
  • celebrating wins

When a person notices that they are starting to feel stressed or overwhelmed due to diabetes and its management, they may consider taking preventive steps to avoid reaching diabetes burnout. These can include:

Taking a break

Some people may refer to this as a diabetes vacation. This refers to taking a few days off from the strict regime that people living with diabetes must adhere to each day. To do this safely, a person should discuss it with their healthcare team.

Reducing stress levels

General stress levels may trigger diabetes burnout. Some ways that can help to reduce stress include:

  • meditation
  • getting plenty of sleep
  • avoiding or limiting alcohol, tobacco, and substance use

Setting achievable treatment and management goals

A person should work with their healthcare team to create attainable treatment and management goals that work for them.

Asking about new technology

Advances in diabetes technology are providing more options for people living with diabetes. Technology such as continuous glucose monitoring, insulin pumps, and closed-loop systems may help make diabetes management easier.

A person can discuss these options with their healthcare team and figure out which options are available to them.

Diabetes burnout refers to a state of exhaustion that occurs due to the demanding nature of diabetes and its management.

While diabetes burnout is a unique experience for each individual, it usually involves a person feeling unable to cope with their diabetes management, which may cause them to disengage with aspects of their treatment.

To help prevent diabetes burnout, it is advisable that people seek support from their healthcare team, friends and family, and others in the diabetes community. Working towards achievable goals in a supportive environment can help a person to better manage their condition.