A trauma-informed approach to diabetes care

By Kira Wiggins

November is American Diabetes Month honoring Sir Frederick Banting, a partner in the discovery of the vital hormone insulin. His November 14 birthday is now celebrated as World Diabetes Day. Without this monumental medical breakthrough those whose bodies no longer produce insulin would not survive. 

Honoring this month heightens awareness of the growing epidemic of diabetes, although sometimes it feels like diabetes is so common we become numb to the gravity of the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 34.2 million people in the United States alone were living with diabetes in 2020, while 88 million were living with the threat of prediabetes. This totals 45% of the American population—yes, that’s almost half of us. The CDC estimates only 5%–10% of these cases are autoimmune, type 1 diabetes—a less common affliction, but no less insidious.

The medical model of managing the development of type 2 diabetes—which is marked by insulin resistance—focuses on lifestyle and physical factors such as smoking, inactivity, excess weight, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. There is no argument that these factors all contribute to the disease and poor health outcomes. But shaming people for their inability to make and sustain changes that could alter the course of their health only leads to exacerbation of what is likely a pre-existing adversarial relationship with their body. Those with diabetes may feel the threat of increasing levels of medical interventions as yet another betrayal by the body. The lack of trust in the body that may result makes it difficult to hear its cues, requests, and needs.

Yoga’s gift: Reconnecting body, mind, and spirit

The basic tenet of yoga asana (posture practice)—allowing the breath to envelop each movement—reconnects the body, mind, and spirit. Gentle, restorative postures create space to feel comfortable in the body and lead one toward the development of love and appreciation for the body in which they live. In the early stages of a yoga therapy approach to diabetes support, it is important to avoid focusing on large muscle use and blood sugar management, as this keeps us stuck in how to fix what is going wrong versus gaining an appreciation for what is going well. 

As one moves toward connecting with their body, they will likely also connect with difficult or unsafe-feeling emotions living in the body. It is crucial to validate these often-confusing sensations as real and appropriate. This powerful experience may be the first opportunity for an individual to understand these feelings as a result of what happened to them—not the result of something being wrong with them. It is within this space that true healing occurs, compassion for the self develops, and love for the body can grow.

Partnering in care: Yoga therapy and mental health

Partnering yoga therapy with a mental health professional* who can help work through shame and develop adaptive coping strategies will support movement toward a place of self-love. This can ultimately lead to a greater desire for self-care and lifestyle choices that serve a healthy, joy-filled existence.

Kira Wiggins, AMFT, RDN, DCES, CAHC, C-IAYT, currently works with individuals on developing harmonious relationships with food, their bodies, and with themselves and can be found at Ventura Counseling and Wellness Center.

*If you are currently working with a mental health professional like a social worker, counselor, or psychologist, you might consider connecting them with your yoga therapist so they can support you in your needs and goals.

You can find an IAYT-certified yoga therapist here.