The Three Magic Pill(ar) Method(TM) for Women’s Health Professionals
My clients are always asking me, “What is the magic pill that I need to take to relieve my pain?” They go from doctor to doctor, therapist to therapist, nutritionist to nutritionist, and more… to find the magic supplement, medication, surgery, or manual therapy technique to relieve their pain, fatigue, anxiety, hot flashes, and other chronic, debilitating symptoms.
I understand, I’ve been there… When I was very sick, I was given lots of advice (some helpful, some not.) Doctors recommended rest, antibiotics, and antidepressants. Integrative medicine practitioners gave me herbs and vitamins, and helped me to understand the biochemistry of my hormonal imbalance. As I learned nutrition, I began to explore how changing my diet changed my physical symptoms, and using my physical therapist brain, I changed my exercise practices from depleting to restorative. Eventually, I found the path to healing, but there was not one magic pill solution. There rarely is with any chronic health condition.
As health and wellness professionals we understand this intuitively. But, we were taught that if we just better understand the biochemistry, or alignment, or lab results, we can find THE solution and FIX the patient. That’s simply not true.
We need to shift our mindset from seeking The Magic Pill Solution to fix our patients to supporting our patients to put the foundational, Three Magic Pillars in place in their lives in order to support their best possible health.
This is even more important for women, let me explain…
Pill(ar) #1: Co-create a Strong Web of Support and Safety
Pain science and our clinical (and often personal) experience has taught us that when our patient is healing from a chronic illness, her nervous system needs to feel like it’s resting deeply in a strong web of support and safety. Imagine that this web is like a hammock for her body and mind. It is in the sun, and she doesn’t have a care in the world as she rests there. She feels so comfortable and safe that she could fall asleep in that hammock (Web of Support and Safety.)
What does that look like on a practical level?
Your client needs to feel safe and relaxed in her financial situation. She needs to be surrounded by positive, caring, and empowering people who believe in her body’s ability to heal. And, she needs to have a great network of friends and family members (or she needs to hire someone) to help with the day-to-day practical challenges of driving her kids to school or doing the laundry or cooking dinner if she’s struggling with intense pain, fatigue, anxiety, or other symptoms.
You need to have enough courage to ask her, “What would it take for you to feel really relaxed and safe in your life and in your body? What would you need to do…? Who would you need to ask for help…? To feel really safe in your body and your life?”
Then, you need to step in and help her to find those resources. You need to show her the value of investing in those resources. You need to coach her to find the self-worth to ask for much more help than she ever has in the past.
To live in this world as a woman inherently means that she is at higher risk of not feeling safe in her body and in her life. Forty-five percent of women in the United States don’t feel safe walking around their home at night (compared with 27% of men1.) Seventy percent of women worldwide experience physical and/or sexual abuse by an intimate partner during their lives2. Far more women live with the fear of poverty and extreme poverty than do men (see chart below3.) While it’s not normal to live under the cloud of this fear, most women in the world do.
Now, depending on the setting where you work, most of your clients may not be living in extreme poverty, many may not be living under the threat of domestic violence, and most may live in a safe neighborhood. That’s all good news. And, yet, when women get sick, struggle with chronic fatigue, anxiety, mood instability, brain fog, or experience quality of life altering pain they often experience a more subtle version of this lack of a strong Web of Support and Safety.
When I was experiencing the worst of my postpartum hormonal imbalance symptoms, I experienced extreme fatigue, insomnia, and panic attacks. I needed a very strong Web of Support and Safety to get through those rock bottom 6 months. My husband, daughter and I moved into a small house in a place where my husband had lots of work, so that I could afford to quit my job and focus on healing. Friends drove my daughter to school, and took her for play dates on my worst days. I hired a nanny and a housekeeper to help me do the simplest things around the house and get the errands done so that I could take care of my 4 year old daughter with the limited energy that I had. The house we lived in was just blocks away from my functional medicine practitioner and my acupuncturist, so that I could see them as often as I needed during those 6 months of intense recovery. While taking a root cause healing approach requires making significant changes to your diet and lifestyle, when you are quite sick, you often can’t do this yourself. When you are in a lot of pain, very fatigued, or scared all of the time, you will need actual, practical help.
It’s our job as healers to help our patients get this practical help in place. To help them find resources and the courage to ask for what they need, and to hold them accountable to setting up this essential pillar of healing.
In addition, your patients may need a perspective shift. You’ll need to ask her, “What do you really need to feel safe and supported?” It usually doesn’t take a big house, lots of money in the bank, and 50 close friends bringing you dinner every day to give a woman a sense of safety. Help her to explore what she can give up in order to focus on her healing with more time, energy, and financial resources? Find out her fears around asking for help, and coach her through them.
Supporting our patients to spin STRONG Webs of Support and Safety may not be easy, but doing so is essential. Having a strong Web of Support and Safety is Pillar #1. If your patient’s nervous system does not feel safe, relief from symptoms of pain, fatigue, anxiety, and autoimmunity will be very difficult, if not impossible. (This explains why women tend to struggle with these issues more commonly than men, doesn’t it?)
Pill(ar) #2: It’s Not Just Fruits and Vegetables
When I was healing from my illness, and I understood that my nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle choices were essential to my path to healing, I tried a lot of crazy things. After taking antidepressants that didn’t help and left me with some awful side effects, I was willing to try anything. I had some kind of herbs injected into my gums. I ate raw egg smoothies and sardines for breakfast. I even tried swimming to the point extreme fatigue in order to try to overcome my insomnia. None of this was helpful.
Fortunately, in the last 9 years, the field of functional medicine has evolved rapidly, and I have been able to learn an evidence-based approach to healing chronic pain, chronic pelvic pain, chronic fatigue, chronic insomnia, chronic brain fog, chronic gut issues, chronic anxiety, chronic autoimmunity and more in the women I serve by learning from skilled colleagues, working with hundreds of patients, and reading and publishing scientific literature. Plus, in the last few years, I have been able to combine my understanding of physical medicine as a physical therapist with my skill as a functional nutritionist (just a few months away from achieving my doctorate in the field) to see how to use the best of physical and manual therapy, nutritional biochemistry, and lifestyle medicine to support my clients to heal from complex hormonal imbalances, pain conditions, functional brain issues, and autoimmune issues.
Fortunately, you don’t have to get a doctoral degree in every field that you’re interested in. What you must do, however, is hold yourself to a standard of lifelong learning and building a network of collaborating professionals in your community to serve your patients in the areas where your skill level is weaker or the areas that are outside of the scope of your practice.
Your patients need you to be excellent at what you do, and they need you to know when you have reached the upper limits of your understanding. When you reach your upper limits of understanding, which will constantly evolve through your career, you need to have a network of trusted colleagues to refer your patients to for collaboration.
The bottom line is… telling your patients just to eat fruits and vegetables won’t be enough. Rarely will there be one supplement or one diet or one manual therapy technique or one exercise that will “save their life.” So, you need to commit to building your skills in physical assessment, history taking, biochemistry, nutrition, movement, manual therapy, communication skills, coaching skills, exercise, lab analysis, etc. etc. through your career. There will always be more to learn. You will never know it all. Be humble enough to collaborate with colleagues, even those in your industry. Let go of your ego and let go of what you probably learned in school (by osmosis), that if you can’t help the patient, you have failed. You have not. You just might not be her healer.
That brings me to Pill(ar) #3…
Pill(ar) #3: You are Not Everyone’s Healer
Years ago I stood in a meeting in front of a group of wonderful business owners, and expressed my frustration. I was literally in tears. I was emotionally struggling with how many women were in pain and sick in the world, and how it felt like I was making such a tiny difference taking care of just a few of them each day in my physical therapy clinic. I am a big picture thinker, and for better or worse, I can see how socioeconomic issues, political issues, human psychology, the complexity of medicine (and everything we don’t know about the body), the broken healthcare system, and the fact that many women simply don’t do what they know would be good for them to do (probably influenced by all of the above global and human complexities), combine to make it really hard to help women heal on a large scale.
I could not see how I could possibly make much of a difference despite how hard I was working.
It was painful.
Then, my mentor, Fabienne Fredrickson, said something to me that changed everything about how I approach my work. She said, “You are not everyone’s healer.”
Let that sink in.
Oh, yes, of course.
When I recognized the truth in that statement, I was able to be a much stronger advocate for each woman in my practice and for each clinician that I teach. Each one of them has to do her own work.
When I was very sick, I had to have a great team of people around me, and my whole family had to make some significant sacrifices so that we could focus on my health for awhile. That team and those sacrifices created my personal Web of Safety and Support. Then, I had to weed through some unhelpful/ dangerous practitioners to find a skilled, experienced, and caring team of healers who I could trust. My team of healers gave me some great recommendations, and my Web of Support helped me to have the resources to be able to follow those recommendations. But, at the end of the day, I had to do the work to heal and I had to trust in my own body’s healing ability.
I had to make some very significant changes to my lifestyle. I gave up dairy, gluten, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine completely for 2 years. I learned how to cook, and stopped eating at restaurants. (In grad school my specialty was slice and bake cookies, and the first meal I made for my husband was burned hot dogs. So, when I say, “I learned how to cook.” I mean I was a complete beginner.) I completely changed how I exercised, and went to yoga 3 times a week for 18 months before I was able to tolerate anything more vigorous. I went to bed (still do) at 9:30pm. I stopped watching television. I stopped working. I asked for an embarrassing amount of help. I took my supplements every day. I drank lots of water. I started a mindfulness practice. I moved (more than once) to find a supportive community. In short, I took responsibility for doing the work of healing my body and mind.
It was very difficult some days. It was well worth it.
Doing that work has changed me as a healer. I now TRUST that my patients, with my support and sometimes my tough love, have the ability to heal themselves. I simply help them to see how to do it. I explain why taking certain vitamins, getting their bodies to yoga class, finding a skilled endometriosis excision surgeon, doing their home exercises, etc. are important for their healing. Then, I give them space to challenge my recommendations, ask questions, and trust that sometimes they know more about what their bodies need than I do. Then, we agree on the next steps in the plan, and I trust them to do the work.
I can not FIX any other human’s suffering. I can ease it. I can recommend a path based on the evidence and my clinical experience. I can help to search for and share resources. I can fiercely hold her accountable. I can coach her through fear, confusion, and old belief systems.
Sometimes… she and I will disagree, or she will not be ready to do the work, or she just doesn’t want to do the work, or she simply doesn’t have access to the resources that I wish that I could provide for her.
In several cases I have given patients who had nothing… shoes, or paid their rent for 6 months. Similarly, I have given professional students scholarships or free training when they have a financial hardship. Sometimes these stepping stones are helpful. Sometimes the patient or student still does not have the capacity to use what I can give to do the work that I wish she would do. You can’t do it for her.
Learn coaching communication skills. Take a strong stand for your patient. Trust her. Then, let go of attachment to the outcome of your work together.
You are not a failure if your patient doesn’t get better. You don’t have that kind of power.
You are not everyone’s healer.
But, when you stand WITH your patient and help her to shift her mindset from looking for The Magic Pill to creating her foundational, Three Magic Pillars, you will be supporting her to create root cause healing in her life from the ground up.