A Nervous System Healing Protocol for Chronic Pain and Illness


A Nervous System Healing Protocol for Chronic Pain and Illness


When we take time out of our lives and focus on healing, chronic pain and illness may become easier to manage.

Chronic pain and illness are complex and incredibly challenging to live with, especially in a culture that expects us to be constantly productive. Chronic conditions are frustratingly mysterious, and while the medical system might be able to help us to a degree, we can often feel abandoned when we don't recover quickly.

We do know, however, that chronic conditions likely have some relationship to the nervous system. A balanced nervous system tends to support balanced hormones, healthy digestion, and a well-functioning immune system. What if we could reset the nervous system and find healing there?

Chronic Illness as a Reaction to Emotional Toxins

One way of thinking about chronic conditions, especially when they are related to autoimmunity, is that the body is reacting to an emotional infection, a toxic environment, or an unhealthy relationship. Identifying those environmental or emotional toxins could be a huge factor in our healing.

I do know, however, that we don’t always have choices about what happens in our lives. Most of us have to work for money, and our jobs don’t always afford us the time and space we need to heal properly. Sometimes the relationships or environments we are in cannot be changed. We can, however, work on our internal experience and find ways to fit healing into whatever realities we have to contend with.

A 40-Day Nervous System Reset

This protocol is intended to calm the nervous system and nourish the body with rest and calm. Committing to this protocol for 40 days (the length of time many people believe it takes to establish a new habit) will give you enough time to find out whether or not this approach soothes your symptoms. By the end of the 40 days, your nervous system will have shifted in such a way that it could support your health, symptoms, and healing. Depending on your work situation, it might be a good idea to actually take some time off to do this protocol.

*If your chronic condition is related to your menstrual cycle, you may need three months to see any changes. Commit to this protocol as fully as you can for 40 days, and then keep up the realistic parts for another two months if possible.

I want to be clear that this protocol is not a cure or prescription. Chronic conditions often respond to lifestyle choices and can ebb and flow with stress in our lives. There may be medications or other protocols that help, too, and it’s important to consult with your healthcare team before making big changes. But committing to supporting a healthy nervous system for a full 40 days may give us some insight into what works for us and what doesn’t, and perhaps build the resilience our bodies need to heal from whatever they are going through.

I recommend committing to this protocol as completely as you can for a full 40 days. Every part of it is intended to reduce stress and calm the nervous system. Once you get a sense of what’s most effective for your symptoms and your body, you will ideally implement some of these habits into your daily life, likely forever. Do your best and adjust according to what’s possible for you. After the 40 days, see how you feel and re-evaluate.

Step 1: Practice Mindfulness

This is a simple but profound step in the protocol. For 40 days, attend gently and carefully to what you are feeling, especially to what is making you feel better. Notice which activities, people, spaces, and environments improve your symptoms and which exacerbate them. A simple mindfulness meditation, like a body scan at the beginning and end of each day, can be very powerful. You could also write down your reflections in a journal.

Step 2: Rest Every Day

Every day, take some time to rest. Ideally, rest as long as you can, but at a minimum, take five minutes to relax. This could be through sleep, meditation, or a restorative yoga pose. Scrolling social media doesn’t count. (Sorry!) Use a guided meditation if your mind tends to wander or stray to worry.

I challenge you to sleep as much as your body is actually asking for, even if it’s most of the day. I know that’s not sustainable in the long term, but for these 40 days, your health is the priority, and if your body is saying it needs 14 hours of sleep, let it have that if at all possible.

Step 3: Find Gentle Movement

Include gentle movement every day if you can (with rest being a higher priority). A walk outside is ideal. Gentle yoga, tai chi, and dance are also good options. This movement should feel good for you and not add stress to your body. If you already have a movement practice that you find helps your symptoms, keep that up. If you know that movement exacerbates your symptoms, skip it for these 40 days.

Step 4: Prioritize Pleasure

Think of pleasure as “Vitamin P.” Having pleasurable, joyful, relaxing experiences is extremely beneficial for all systems of your body. Prioritize doing the things you enjoy and get curious about what you like and what feels good for you. Include mindful pleasure every day (and remember that finding pleasure is not the same as numbing your feelings).

Step 5: Nourish Yourself with Food

Eat breakfast within an hour of waking if you can. Do not go longer than four to five hours without eating during the day.

At every meal, have a combination of protein, fat, and fiber. Focus on cooked foods that are easy to digest and that your body enjoys. Do not force yourself to eat things you don’t want.

Pay attention to how food feels in your system after you’ve eaten it. Lean towards foods that feel good and avoid foods that don’t.

Limit caffeine within reason, especially after noontime. Limit alcohol as well, especially close to bedtime, as it disturbs deep sleep. If a glass of wine with food brings you joy with no negative consequences, enjoy it.

Do not consume caffeine, sugar, or alcohol on an empty stomach, as they will disturb your blood sugar levels. Keeping blood sugar levels even is very important for your nervous system and general health.

Step 6: Incorporate Supplements

Talk to a doctor or health practitioner about adding supplements to your routine, as many supplements can be quite powerful. These suggestions here are basics that will work for most people, but a doctor or naturopath can give you more information about what might work best for you and your condition.

  • Vitamin D: Most of us are surprisingly deficient in Vitamin D. Take 1000-3000 IU per day, especially in wintertime.
  • Iron: Not everyone needs iron, but if your iron tends to be low, get a supplement that is easy to digest (which usually means the iron is combined with Vitamin B and C).
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is calming and generally safe. You can dissolve it into hot water or tea before bed. Magnesium citrate is good if you have constipation but may be too harsh on your system. Magnesium glycinate is very easy on the system.
  • N-acetyl cysteine (NAC): Many chronic conditions are accompanied by oxidative stress (endometriosis is one example). Several studies have shown that NAC (at a dosage of 600-1200 mg/day) can be extremely helpful in reducing oxidative stress, which boosts the immune system.

Step 7: Commit to Internal Work

This protocol may trigger feelings of guilt, fear, or panic, especially if you are taking time off work to heal or feel as though you are not being as “productive” as you think you should be. You may encounter core beliefs about self-care and self-worth. You might also discover that something needs to change in your life, like a job or close relationship; these realizations are powerful but may also add stress.

If you have the time and the resources, consider seeing a counselor or spiritual healer to help empower you to give yourself permission to rest and heal. It can also be helpful to journal your thoughts and feelings for these 40 days. You may also want to consider reading the following books:

  • Rest is Resistance by Tricia Hersey

  • The Autoimmune Cure by Sara Szal Gottfried, MD

  • When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté, MD

Good luck on your healing journey!

Try these eight Ayurvedic tips to support the nervous system.


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A Nervous System Healing Protocol for Chronic Pain and Illness

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