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Working Women And Health – The Need For A Mind-Body-Soul Connection 

Written by: Colleen O'Neill Mulvihill, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Colleen O'Neill Mulvihill

A 30-year veteran (retired) career firefighter shares her story about the untold truths of working in a male-dominated environment while balancing motherhood, which eventually took a toll on her health and well-being. She now coaches other women on prioritizing their health through a holistic mind/body/soul approach. 

Photo of firewoman.

It’s no secret that, globally, women are doing more to contribute to advancing life on this planet than ever before. We’re birthing babies, breaking glass ceilings, inventing, researching, discovering, and leading. Women sit at the table where, traditionally, only men have seated before. We lead aircraft carriers, board rooms, fire departments, and F18 squadrons. Our responsibilities are well-earned yet, at the same time, are often heavier than we bargained for. 

Our quest for equality has improved the world in ways unfathomable only a century ago. Yet, somehow, in the striving for inclusivity, we women have inadvertently doubled our load. What’s been slower to catch up with women’s shift toward more traditional male roles outside of the home is our ability to let go of our sometimes-self-imposed roles inside the home. We attempt to shoulder all responsibilities simultaneously as if there’s some award for being the “doer of all things.” Ultimately, this takes a toll on women’s health. 

I know this because I lived it. 

Emotional challenges of working women

As a full-time career firefighter during a time when women in the department equaled less than 3%, I often found myself explaining to other women – moms especially – that my choice to be a career firefighter allowed me to have the perfect balance the best of both worlds. I was an employee with a full-time salary and benefits one day out of every three, as we worked 24 hours on duty, followed by 48 hours off duty. During the two off-duty days, I got to be a stay-at-home mom. The simplicity in the statement of having the perfect balance was an illusion known only to me. The reality was I had two full-time jobs, and I was hell-bent on succeeding at both while excelling at balancing the two. (Hello, masculine energy!)

I was a mom to three children before the age of 30. This required me to engage my most profound masculine energy each day I went to work, then shift back into mom mode when I got home. What was truly happening was that I inadvertently brought a heaping dose of that masculine energy back home with me each day. Being a woman in a male-dominated workplace required me to prove myself worthy of being a firefighter every single day and on every single call for service. The constant striving for increased physical strength, the continuous talking myself into having tougher mental strength, and the ongoing battle of balancing my emotions as I witnessed the horrors that the job brought me face-to-face with some days was an arduous task. 

I also knew that achieving balance required me to take off my firefighter coat (both literally and figuratively) at the end of my shift so that I could don my stay-at-home wife and mom coat to nurture my children and provide the type of home I wanted them to grow up in. Shifting back and forth became a delicate dance between my two personalities, resulting in losing my true self and often my health in the process. 

On the rare occasion that I could take off both ‘coats’ simultaneously, I found myself restless and lacking any idea of what brought me true joy outside of work and home. It was as if I was a stranger to my own authenticity. This was the early warning sign that my nervous system regulation was entirely out of balance. 

An unexpected introduction to health and wellness

As the kids got older and went to school, I filled my extra time with never-ending household chores, started a small residential landscaping business, and took a few classes at a local community college to finish my degree. Rest was never an option in my mind. I was so used to doing that I had no idea how just to be. 

When I went to register for another elective class toward my degree in Fire Service Management, I found that the one I wanted was full and no longer accepting students. On a whim, I settled on Health & Wellness 101 – after all, I was a certified emergency medical technician and a firefighter, so I assumed this class would be an easy A for me. What I couldn’t have known at the time was just how crucial this single community college class would be in paving my future path, introducing me to what is now my passion, and teaching me how to holistically manage a yet-to-be-revealed auto-immune disease that would present itself in my mid-forties. 

Healthcare vs. Sick care

It was there in my health class that I had the most incredible lightbulb moment. 

When I began to understand how much disease, ill health, and suffering society could eradicate simply by teaching people how to nourish themselves properly, I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. As the class progressed, my desire to learn all I could about holistic health, nutrition, mindset, and movement grew exponentially. Soon, I found myself in nutrition school, studying to become a personal trainer and mentoring hopeful firefighter candidates in the physical ability test known as CPAT. (Hello, more masculine energy!)

As the years passed, I noticed how often I was the only woman in the room, yet I never felt out of place. I became “one of the guys” and developed lifelong friendships and bonds with men I came to know as my brothers. It felt strange to me the first time another woman was assigned to my shift because being around feminine energy in a firehouse was not something I had ever experienced on the job previously. I had become a master at being a chameleon – changing who I was on the inside to match who I was expected to be on the outside, depending on the audience. 

Between the physical demands of the job and the chameleon-like behavior necessary to fit my various high masculine energy roles, coupled with the self-imposed stress of trying to be a great mom, chef, housekeeper, and taxi driver for my kids, it was no wonder that I didn’t know who I was on the inside. And when stress builds on the inside due to a lack of nervous system regulation, it eventually shows up as ill health on the outside. 

When disease becomes a wakeup call

At age 45, I awoke one day with such severe pain in both of my wrists that it hurt to brush my teeth. Assuming I had somehow overworked my joints in the gym, I took a few days off from my weightlifting routine to heal. A week came and went, and the wrist pain became progressively worse. As I waited a split-second for my Google search results on “bilateral wrist pain,” I had a gut feeling that something serious was happening. I hadn’t spent much time listening to my inner voice previously, so maybe I was just being paranoid. Then, each article returned the same results: Rheumatoid Arthritis. 

On my first visit to the rheumatologist, I had a blood draw and a sonogram on my hands and wrists. My C-reactive protein (CRP) markers were four times the typical values, indicating I had high levels of systemic inflammation, the kind typically seen in severe health conditions. I was floored. How could this happen? 

I knew what to eat. I exercised regularly. I was fit and healthy, or so I thought. My doctor pointed toward genetics. The trouble was that no one in my family had a history of RA or any other auto-immune disease. For the first time, I realized that being “healthy” required much more than eating well and exercising at the gym.

There’s no known cause for many auto-immune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers have found a connection between the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and RA, especially when mononucleosis was contracted as a teenager, which happened to me in late summer between ninth and tenth grade. Mono is one of the strains of EBV that creates memory B-cells that lay dormant in the body until something in the carrier’s environment causes them to reemerge. 

EBV is thought to establish a benign, lifelong, latent infection in the resting memory of B cells and silently lives in as much as 90% of the world's population. What remains unknown is precisely what triggers their active reemergence in some people and not others – and why these cells confuse healthy joint tissue with an enemy intruder needing destruction. 

The sad reality is that although under control, this autoimmune disease will never go away. It can be managed effectively with proper lifestyle choices, but it will remain a part of who I am forever. I’ll always have mornings where my ankles don’t want to bend as I try to take my first few steps after getting out of bed. And I’ll continue to watch my knuckles grow, and fingers distort as I age. 

Health coaching changed my life

While working with a health coach after my diagnosis and then later during my training to become a certified health coach, my realization that wellness is much more than diet and exercise deepened. What also became clear was that although we all are human, our bio-individuality makes each of us unique in how our body assimilates and responds to food, environments, trauma (both physical and mental), and life stressors. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to wellness. 

In my case, some combination of environmental exposure at work, wearing so many “coats,” maintaining super solid masculine energy and high standards, physically challenging my body past its ability, and burying emotional trauma created the perfect climate for my EBV to surface as rheumatoid arthritis. Maybe all of that mattered. Perhaps none of it mattered. I’ll never know, nor will any doctor be able to say definitively. 

Nourishment is more than the food we eat

What I do know for sure is that being well means nourishing all aspects of oneself. Nourishment must include a positive way to feed the mind, a bio-individual way to provide for our physical body, and some aspect of our daily life that feeds our soul in a way that resonates with our true inner being. There must also be time for quality rest that allows for deep inner work. 

When any one of these lacks appropriate nourishment, we become out of balance. When we stay chronically out of balance, illness will eventually arrive in some form. 

At times, women can take on such deep levels of masculine energy in the workplace that we forget how to be in touch with our femineity. Embracing our femineity should not be confused with being “girly.” It’s not about what we wear, high heels, or makeup. It’s about embracing the part of us on the inside that makes us who we are – that part of our inner knowing, our compassion, and empathy toward ourselves and others, the part of who we are that can be described as intangible. We need to slow down long enough to hear it and feel it. This is the number one reason I became a women’s wellness coach. 

Making a shift toward better health

Along with relevant wellness coaching, my top recommendation for women is to take quality time by stepping away from their work and home environments long enough to reset. Wellness travel resorts across the nation provide a semi-structured environment that allows for both rest and relaxation, as well as a jumpstart to better health. Want to learn how to de-stress, lose weight, and keep it off? There’s a wellness retreat for that. Want to learn how to improve your quality of sleep? There’s a wellness retreat for that, too. And in case you are wondering if wellness retreats are worth the time away and the cost, here’s an article I wrote containing the answer based on a recent study. 

It’s my hope that every high-functioning, working woman – especially those in a male-dominated industry – can learn something from my story. Even if it’s just to ask yourself – your inner self – how are you doing? How are you truly doing? And if anything inside you feels like it needs attention, don’t wait to tend to yourself. We women owe it to ourselves to dig deeper to better care for our whole person. Because when we do, the collective planet is better for it. 

If you’re a working woman struggling to find overall wellness or balance, feel free to reach out to me. I offer free 20-minute discovery calls to discuss what working together would be like. I’d be honored to be your wellness coach. 

You can find more information about my wellness coaching programs here. For more information about wellness travel or travel coaching needs, contact me here.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and visit my website for more info!

Colleen O'Neill Mulvihill Brainz Magazine

Colleen O'Neill Mulvihill, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Colleen O'Neill Mulvihill spent 30 years as a career firefighter, where she developed a passion for holistic health, wellness, and nutrition. During that time, she became a trusted collegue, often coaching other firefighters toward healthier habits. After retirement, she continued coaching and developed a passion for traveling. Combining her two loves, she now coaches on transformation, mindset, and all things wellness travel. Her mission: Helping women to find their mind, body, and soul connection.


Photo credits:

  • Doug Walton



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