headache neck pain stressI have been a nurse for over twenty years and a holistic nurse practitioner for 13 of those years. This is the story of how I became my own patient and found healing through mindful self-care, holistic modalities, and herbalism. I think my story will resonate with most nurses, especially those that are working hard to fulfill many roles for many people. Nurses are stressed-out, exhausted, and overworked. We are notoriously terrible patients when we get sick. So, I hope that my story helps you to notice when stress is overtaking your body and to use your healing resources before it transforms into a chronic illness.

I am a highly sensitive person and stress lives in my body, even though I maintain a very calm exterior. In my early thirties, after I became a nurse practitioner, my mother died of cancer and I gave birth to my son within the span of a year. Shortly afterward, I began to have gastrointestinal and anxiety problems. I learned to manage my symptoms with a clean, healthy diet and relaxation techniques. I soldiered on at work, believing that the pressure created by insurance, billing, revenue, time constraints, glaring healthcare disparities, and an increasingly sick population was not affecting me. I tried to use my holistic principles with patients whenever possible but found the conventional healthcare setting to be counterproductive to my intuitive skills as a nurse. My stress moved into my neck and shoulders where it lived in the form of constant tension. My body was talking to me and I only partially listened. I did yoga and got massages but continued to ignore the daily stress.

In 2018, my neck began to scream at me to pay attention. Over the course of weeks, my shoulders were visibly higher than my natural posture and my neck was so tight I could hardly turn my head. My head would go numb at work and I began to get debilitating headaches on a daily basis. I had to leave my job because I could no longer keep up the pace of ten-minute visits with a schedule full of patients. This devastated me. I started to believe I was permanently disabled after a neurologist diagnosed me with a chronic neuromuscular condition that causes constant spasming of the muscles in my neck and shoulders called cervical dystonia. Being a clinician myself, I dove into the internet to research my condition and could not find evidence of anyone recovering. Instead, there was a plethora of stories of people suffering for years, living in pain, retreating from their lives. The thought of becoming one of these people sent me into a deep depression.

I tried two invasive procedures and intense physical therapy, all unsuccessful. I began taking three different medications to soothe my overwrought nervous system and persistent pain. I was barely functional, some days hardly able to lift a cup of water without inducing severe spasms that radiated pain into the back of my head. I had to walk slower than the elderly people in my neighborhood. Driving was avoided or greatly reduced. My family had to help me with simple chores. I had to lay down to rest my neck after minor tasks, like changing my clothes or washing my hair. My days were unbearably sad and boring, I felt that life was leaving me behind. Thank goodness for good podcasts and audiobooks!

And yet, there was a voice inside me saying that I had to believe I could get better, the other choices were too dire. I wrote positive affirmations about my future and taped them to my bedroom wall. I recited them consistently throughout the day, even when I didn’t believe a word I was saying. I started practicing yoga nidra to access deep relaxation and reacquainted myself with the energetic body. I started to let go of the activities I thought defined me as a successful working mother and focused on the small accomplishments that made me feel a little less helpless. I journaled during my darkest moments and on my good days. Fortunately for me, I have wonderful friends and family that kept me laughing and feeling loved.

I began to seek out holistic practitioners outside of the conventional medical model. I found a gifted practitioner of Bowenwork, a gentle form of massage that calms the nervous system and soothes inflamed fascia in the body. She listened to me deeply, never doubting my suffering or my ability to overcome it. I started to become more functional, though still definitely moving slow and in pain, it became more tolerable and less restrictive. Several months later I began Feldenkrais Therapy. Through the gentle, repetitive movements of the Feldenkrais method, my mobility started to improve even further. I now had proof that improvement was possible and realized my story was unwritten and wide open for interpretation.

I am happy to say that I am now off all of my medication and now use herbs to quell my anxiety and spasming when it is acting up. I walk fast and break a sweat, I move comfortably and keep up with my family again. I have few limitations and can turn my head with ease. My shoulders are back where they belong. My meditation practice has deepened and my sense of wellness is finely tuned. My compassion for myself and for others has grown exponentially. I have befriended the unknown and now see my neck as an important spiritual teacher in my life. This teacher is still not afraid to speak up when I have been too active without periods of rest or too anxious about things I cannot control. My neck is my compass, keeping me on track. I am not pain-free, but I have also never felt better.

My experiences giving care, receiving care, and learning from my teachers and healers have helped me to focus on the many ways that healing is available to anyone who is ready to quiet their mind, listen to their body, and trust their spirit. I feel so fortunate to be able to return to my career and use my experience to help others transform their suffering into clarity and peace. One way I do this is by educating others on how herbal medicine can help ease the symptoms of chronic stress, anxiety, tension, and insomnia. I do not suggest using herbs alone, but making them a part of a holistic plan that encompasses relaxation and stress reduction techniques, gentle movement, healthy diet, and adequate rest. I was the toughest patient I have ever had, what I learned from my journey is invaluable to me.

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