Mental Contrasting for Diabetes Management

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Fitness partners high-fiving -- Mental Contrasting for Diabetes Management

Most of us have been told to “think positively” at some time in our lives — and it makes sense that thinking positively will make us feel better, which in turn will make life better. However, as many will have already realized, positive thinking can only get you so far. It can even become toxic if we focus solely on the positive and push anything negative away.

Perhaps a healthier option is mental contrasting.

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Mental contrasting: a healthy dose of reality

One flaw of positive thinking is it merely focuses on the end goal and doesn’t address ways to reach it. Mental contrasting, on the other hand, does both. Developed by German psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, mental contrasting is a visualization technique where you initially think about your future positive goal, such as better management of your diabetes, then contrast that vision with the reality of reaching your goal. In this way, you have a positive aspiration but are also considering your capability for reaching that aspiration. This isn’t negative thinking, but realistic thinking. It allows you to examine both the strengths that will help you reach your goal and identify any obstacles that might be in your way. It is only through identifying these obstacles that you can overcome them — and achieve what you set out to.

This strategy can be applied to both physical goals and goals related to achieving a desired psychological state, such as being happy or more confident.


Practicing mental contrasting for diabetes: WOOP!

A useful way to remind yourself of how to practice mental contrasting is to imagine yourself yelping “WOOP!” when you reach your goal.

WOOP encapsulates the simple four-step process needed to practice mental contrasting, where “WO” represents the positive thinking and “OP” represents the healthy dose of reality:

Mental contrasting process

Positive thinking

Wish: Visualize a desire or goal you wish to achieve.

Outcome: Visualize yourself achieving this goal and what it will physically and mentally feel like.


Obstacles: Think about your current reality and whether there is anything that might act as a barrier to you achieving what you have just visualized. These barriers could be external, such as lack of the right tools, or internal, such as lack of confidence.

Plan: Take each obstacle and use the “if-then” statement to think about what you can do to overcome each potential obstacle. By coming up with a plan, you are carrying out what psychologists refer to as “implementation intention” — simply by having a solid and actionable plan in place, you increase the likelihood that you will implement that plan when an obstacle arises.

Using WOOP for diabetes self-management

So, how does mental contrasting apply to diabetes self-management? Why not see for yourself by carrying out the WOOP exercise on a self-management goal you have. Two examples are presented below to help get you started.



I wish I had a healthier diet.


By eating more healthfully, I will experience better moods, lose any excess weight, and have more energy. I will also reduce the risk of diabetes becoming more severe.


Eating healthily is easier said than done. My sweet tooth always gets in the way, and I can’t resist dipping into my husband’s evening chips.


· If there are food temptations, then I will remind myself of the benefits of having a healthy diet.
· If I am tempted by my husband’s chips, then I will make my own healthier version, such as homemade sweet potato chips.
· If I struggle with craving sweet foods, then I will have one day a week where I can treat myself to a mini candy bar. This will give me something to look forward to.



I wish I was better at monitoring my blood sugar.


By monitoring my blood sugar, I will understand what makes it fluctuate so that I have better control over it. This will make me feel healthier and help prevent me developing diabetes complications.


I always forget to monitor my blood sugar.


· If I forget to monitor my blood sugar because I am busy, then I will set an alarm to remind me.
· If I forget to monitor my blood sugar because I never have the right equipment and forget to do it later, then I will make sure I carry my equipment with me.
· If I “forget” to monitor my blood sugar because I don’t like doing it, then I will ask my wife to support me.

Now it’s your turn to have a try!

Strengthening mental preparations for diabetes

When it comes to diabetes self-management — or anything in life — positive thinking is only the tip of the iceberg. If you really want something to “WOOP” about, get mental contrasting. It’s a tool you can take with you anywhere.

Want to learn more about cognitive approaches for improving diabetes management? Read “Learning Self-Compassion” and “Overcoming Triggers to Overeating.”

Nicola Davies, PhD

Davies is a Health Psychologist and Medical Writer at Health Psychology Consultancy Ltd. Her expertise is in the psychology of health and well-being, which she writes prolifically on across the globe. She has three books: I Can Beat Obesity! Finding the Motivation, Confidence and Skills to Lose Weight and Avoid Relapse, I Can Beat Anorexia! Finding the Motivation, Confidence and Skills to Recover and Avoid Relapse, and Eating Disorder Recovery Handbook: A Practical Guide to Long-Term Recovery.

Davies’ work in the field of pain is largely focused on lifestyle, behavior change, coping, and developing the skills and confidence to self-manage.


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