Chronic Illness is Not a Life Sentence
By Jen Donovan
I was lying in bed, having called into work again. My heart was pounding though I was lying still. My thoughts were racing and my head was cloudy. My stomach was bloated and distended. My face swollen and covered in painful red hives. My muscles weak and exhausted. I was 26, and should have been in my prime. What had happened to me?
Four years later I am sitting on the couch writing this article. Today I took a three mile walk, did a half hour of yoga, and did two hours of intensive work in my garden- and my body still feels strong and energized. I rarely have skin reactions anymore, and when I do they are quite mild. I can do intensive exercise with no heart issues. My digestion is smooth. My mind is calm, and my thoughts feel clear. How did this dramatic change occur in just a few years?
The key lies in the great conductor of our mind-body connection: the nervous system.
Our nervous system is ultimately a threat detection system. It constantly scans our external and internal environments, and assesses our current level of safety.
Our body knows how to deal with stress. It knows how to deal with injuries, toxins, predations, droughts. Millions of years of our ancestors had highly toned nervous systems that could respond effectively to a wide variety of stressors- thats how they survived to bear descendents. They could experience a threat, our nervous system would respond accordingly to meet that threat, and then we would move forward with our lives with little long term effects.
Our body does not know well how to deal with modern stress. A low nutrient diet of processed foods, wildly increased toxic exposure, sedentary lifestyles, high levels of chronic work, life, and relationship stress, horrifying rates of interpersonal and developmental trauma, inescapable systemic oppression. These are not the threats our nervous system evolved to respond to and move on from. The result? Long term, chronic disregulation of the nervous system resulting in debilitating mental and physical illness.
Because the nervous system modulates every system in the body, symptoms of nervous system disregulation can look many different ways. Brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, depression, emotional disturbance, unresolvable PTSD, digestive issues, neurological dysfunction, cardiovascular and respiratory problems, skin disorders, and in its most severe state, severe mental illness and autoimmune disease.
So how did I reach such a health rock bottom at such a young age? My nervous system had been assaulted from every angle. Toxic exposure from heavy metals, antibiotic use imbalancing my gut microbiome, nutrient deficiencies from a standard American diet, a high stress life of school and work and the unfortunately “normal” traumatic experiences a young woman in our culture can expect to experience. And as these things tend to go, it became a snowball effect. Anxiety stemming from chronic stress was prescribed more toxic medications. Chronic infections stemming from a repressed immune system resulted in more and more treatments of antibiotics. Everything supposed to stop these symptoms made them worse. Finally, something snapped, and my body descended into severe autoimmune disease which manifested symptoms in every system of my body.
I spent a year in a constant state of panic and dread. Everything I once took for granted was crumbling in front of me. I had severe fatigue and muscle weakness to the point where I could barely walk, heart palpitations and shortness of breath, had extremely painful periods or none at all, and near constant allergic reactions to seemingly random stimuli manifesting as hives, cheek flushing, rashes, a tight and itchy throat, and stomach cramps. A terrible, deep part of my intuition told me that I was dying. Another part of me thought I was going crazy- and I wondered if I was becoming psychotic and delusional.
It was at this rock bottom that I had a profound realization. Through my symptoms, my nervous system was trying to tell me something. I realized that I could no longer deny my symptoms. Everything I felt was a message straight from my body to my conscious self. My symptoms were my body asking me for help. So I decided to surrender, and to listen.
A series of synchronous encounters at just this opportune time opened me to the world of holistic medicine. Suddenly, my symptoms made sense in the context of a nervous system bombarded with so many multifaceted offenders. My body was trying its best to pull through, to help me survive. It was my environment- internal and external- that was the problem.
So I changed my environment. Little by little I tackled each aspect of my lifestyle- focusing only on the things I had the power to change. I overhauled my nutrition, dedicating myself to a whole foods based, ancestral way of eating that I have tweaked many times over my years of healing to fit my current goals. I learned about herbs, vitamins and minerals, how to use them to correct imbalances and depletions. I tossed out all my conventional cleaning and hygiene products, learning to make mostly my own from simple, natural ingredients to avoid unnecessary toxins. I became fascinated with the liver, our incredible detoxing organ, and found holistic ways to support its essential work. I shifted the way I thought about time, expectation, productivity, and rest. I reset the entire pace of my life to center around slowness, wellness, and body awareness. I completely changed my life values and priorities, and tried to think of signalling safety to my nervous system by lifting as close to ancestrally as possible as my primary purpose and focus.
So I created a new environment for my nervous system. There are always things that you won’t be able to control- I can’t control the air pollution I am exposed to every day or the stress from sociopolitical factors much larger than myself. But I did everything I could. I gave my nervous system nourishing, gut healing, nutrient dense foods. I eliminated as many exposures to toxic substances as possible. And I re focused my relationships, mindset and daily routines to reinforce a sense of calmness in my body.
This was not a simple or straight forward process. In fact, it is quite common for things to get worse before they get better. Symptoms can flare up badly during healing processes, and you have to push through anyway. There were times I felt completely lost- like my identity had crumbled. There were moments I was overwhelmed with grief. I lost relationships, friendships, preferences, hobbies, vices. But from that empty field I grew new loves, new habits, new passions, new comforts. And my body began to heal.
Our nervous systems are highly flexible. When they are given threatening stimuli- they will respond defensively. Our nervous systems find ways to protect us- to keep us alive at all costs. Even if it means giving us distressing symptoms from chronic diseases in the long term to do so. If you change the stimuli your body is receiving, your nervous system will begin to respond differently. With each new day there are numerous opportunities for re patterning. And with re patterning comes healing.
This is why I do the work I do. Because I have seen first hand the power of our nervous system- first to destroy our health, and also to rebuild it. All you need is the proper building blocks- in fact, it is inevitable that your body will begin to heal when it is given the right environment to do so.
I am passionate to help people recognize that chronic illness- mental and physical- are not life sentences. Healing is always possible. And I want to make this daunting work feel accessible. It is not easy- the entire structure of our society is set up to create obstacles at every turn in this journey, and some of us have more privilege than others in how we can navigate those obstacles. I want you to feel empowered to make every change possible to give your nervous system a new message from your world, and from your own body.
Change is hard. It requires acceptance for what is true, and belief in what is possible. It takes a sense of surrender- a surrender to the journey and a dedication to your own healing. Change is hard, and it is also what your nervous system is asking you for, with every symptom you experience, every day.