10 Ways To Regulate Your Nervous System, According to Brain and Behavior Experts

Photo: Getty Images / ruslanshramko
With the busyness of every day life, it’s safe to say our nervous systems go through a lot. Many of us are perpetually operating with high stress levels due to work demands, health problems, financial challenges, caregiving, and other sources of chronic stress. This, as you might imagine, can really take a toll on your overall well-beminding and result in a dysregulated nervous system.

Ahead, experts explain how the nervous system becomes unbalanced, the signs to look out for, and actionable tips to help reinstate a sense of peace and calm in the body.

In This Article

Experts In This Article

Why the nervous system becomes dysregulated

Stress, poor sleep, traumatic events, relationship conflicts, depression, chronic anxiety, and difficulty managing frustration (read: adult temper tantrums) are all things that can cause the nervous system to become dysregulated, says Judy Ho, PhD, a licensed and triple board-certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist.

To better understand this, Caroline Leaf, PhD, a neuroscientist, mental health expert and host of Cleaning Up The Mental Mess podcast, explains that our mind’s job, specifically the unconscious mind, is to interpret stimuli—both internal stimuli (sadness, anxiety, anger, etc.) and external stimuli (stressful situations)—and decide how to react. Essentially, the mind is constantly looking for cues of danger and stress to prompt us to act and protect ourselves.

The mind will send messages to the body that can look like anxiousness and depressive symptoms when faced with stressors. “These signals are trying to point to areas of our life that are harming us—they are messengers,” Leaf says. “However, when these stressors happen over a long time and become repeated events and are not managed, this can lead to a dysregulation in the mind, brain, and body.”

What happens physiologically when your nervous system is dysregulated

The autonomic nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic (also known as the "rest and digest" state), and when your nervous system is dysregulated, it becomes out of balance.

“The sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for managing stressful incidents and emergencies, becomes overly dominant,” Ho explains. So your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you calm down, relax, and rest, is "unable to exert any significant control over how you are feeling, thinking, or behaving,” Ho says.

In other words, the "fight or flight" stress response becomes overly active, putting your body in a very stressful, high-alert state.

Leaf says long-term stressors can cause a constant state of unease, uncertainty, and worry. She adds that this can also happen as a result of past traumas. “These traumatic experiences are manifested in our physiology, making our body think we are in a state of emergency constantly, and this is where the term dysregulation comes in,” Leaf says. “Our brain and body, when under constant stress or as a result of extreme trauma, is, over time, less and less able to enter into the ‘rest and digest’ state...which can impact our mental and physical health.”

Signs of a dysregulated nervous system

So, how do you know if you have a dysregulated nervous system? Ho says you’ll experience many symptoms that feel like fight-or-flight reactions, such as:

  • Difficulty focusing and regulating emotions
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Digestive problems
  • Physical expressions of emotional symptoms like headaches or unexplained body pains
  • Physiological responses such as heart racing, dizziness, and feeling out of control

Leaf adds that other signs include body tension, feelings of panic or dread that come out of nowhere, or experiencing a “sudden ‘explosion’ of emotions in situations that do not necessarily require a drastic response.” All can be lesser-known signs of stress in the body,

Ways to regulate your nervous system

1. Take deep breaths

Breathing exercises for calmness are a simple yet effective way to regulate your nervous system.

“Deep breaths help to restore control to the parasympathetic nervous system and send signals to your brain and body that no emergency is happening,” Ho explains. In particular, she recommends doing a box breathing exercise by inhaling for four counts, holding for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and holding for four counts. Then repeat for a total of 10 rounds.

There are also nervous system exercise apps, if you're looking for extra guidance.

2. Follow the 30-90 second rule

When you experience a stressful something (an event, conversation, etc.), Leaf explains there is an initial biochemical and electrical surge that lasts 30 to 90 seconds when your unconscious and conscious mind is adjusting and processing the incoming information. This is when we tend to react impulsively.

Instead of responding right away, Leaf recommends practicing exercises to calm down, like the 30-90 second rule. It helps reinstate neurophysiological calm and neurological balance in the brain and body.

The 30-90 second rule entails doing the following three things sequentially in a 90-second period:

  • First, breathe in deeply, so your ribcage expands, and focus on a strong exhale. Repeat three to five times.
  • Then, if possible, create some mental space by going into another room or a restroom and yelling out loud (if appropriate) or in your mind.
  • Lastly, do something physical like stretching or burpees.

Respond to the event, comment, or other stressor only after you've completed all three things.

3. Visualize your emotions

In moments of dysregulation, Ho says our feelings can feel amplified, making it hard to get hold of them. To help with this, she recommends relaxation exercises to gain control.

Start by visualizing yourself taking whatever emotion you’re feeling (let’s say, overwhelm), and putting it in front of you to help create boundaries between you and the sentiment. She adds that you can even manipulate the emotion. For instance, if you picture the emotion as a heavy bowling ball, you can squeeze it down to the size of a tennis ball, making it easier to handle.

Then sit in stillness, have a cup of tea to calm your nerves, and let the stress melt away.

4. Practice detailed mind-wandering

Another way Leaf recommends harnessing the power of visualization is by recalling a beautiful image of something that brought you joy, such as scenery, artwork, or a meal. Then, close your eyes and let your mind wander in the imagery. Relive the happy experience for a couple of minutes or until you feel calm.

“Visualizing activates the same areas in the brain as if you were actually carrying out the action because the brain follows the pattern of the mind,” Leaf explains. “When you visualize a happy cluster of memories, this generates a frequency in the brain that overrides the negative frequency the toxic stress caused and calms down the nervous system.”

Consider it a visualization meditation for the nervous system. 

5. Bring in more positive thoughts

When you experience signs of nervous system dysregulation, it can make you feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts. To combat this, Leaf recommends thinking of three or four positive thoughts to prevent your mind from ruminating. These thoughts can be about movies or books you enjoy, happy memories, or future plans you’re excited about—just make sure to use calming words.

Ho offers another helpful tip: Singing the negative thoughts to the tune of an upbeat song. For instance, sing “today is going to be the most stressful day” to the beat of the happy birthday song. “You’ll notice that it takes the air out of the negative thought, and you are more likely to take less stock in the doom and gloom thoughts that will further deregulate your nervous system,” she says.

6. Take a cold shower

Cold plunges are all the rage right now, but there could be some anxiety-reducing benefits to cold water exposure. A small January 2023 study in Biology1 tested the effects of cold water immersion with a group of swimmers. After five minutes fully immersed in frigid temps (20 degrees celsius to be exact), researchers found that participants had an improved mood and reported feeling less distressed and nervous.

No need to go fill up a tub of freezing cold water—a quick, icy shower will work just fine.

7. Try Polyvagal therapy

Polyvagal therapy is a form of therapy based on the Polyvagal theory—the idea that the autonomic nervous system (specifically the vagus nerve) plays a significant role in regulating health and behavior, per the Polyvagal Institute.

The vagus nerve is one of the largest nerves in the body and is responsible for many of the body’s crucial functions like breathing, digestion, and heart rate, per the Cleveland Clinic. It's a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and also has a hand in controlling behavior, mood, and emotions.

Polyvagal therapy is a strategy that emphasizes mind-body connection, using techniques to regulate nerves and manage an individual’s response to stress and trauma. Polyvagal theory encourages people to:

  • Get to know how you respond to stress and what it feels like when your autonomic nervous system is activated.
  • Learn how to self-regulate, meaning manage your emotional state through deep breathing, gentle touch, or relaxing activities like yoga or meditation.
  • Build positive social connections, which can help soothe the nervous system.
  • Explore what triggers your stress response and work to avoid or limit your exposure.
  • Work with a mental health provider who specializes in Polyvagal therapy if you need extra support.

8. Consider getting an emotional support animal

A furry friend has a special ability to calm our nerves (dog’s aren’t called “man’s best friend" for nothing, after all). Trained therapy dogs and service animals can provide animal-assisted therapy, comfort, and support for people who qualify, according to Mental Health America.

In order to be approved for one, though, you’ll need a written note from your doctor or a mental health professional, stating that you’re being treated for a mental health condition. If that feels too burdensome, know that having a pet (even if your cat or dog isn't specifically trained to be a support animal) helps promote emotional stability and reduce stress, per a February 2018 systematic review in BMC Psychiatry

9. Move your body

Exercise and stress relief go hand-in-hand. You know that post-workout high after going to the gym or finishing a run? It’s no coincidence that you feel better after movement—there’s science behind it. According to the Mayo Clinic, physical activity can help your brain produce more endorphins (those are the feel-good neurotransmitters).

And it isn’t just high-intensity workouts and cardio that get the job done. A walk outside or a hike in nature, or even Pilates for stress relief can achieve the same mood-boosting benefits. You can even shake to release stress. Exercise can provide much-needed stress relief and nervous system regulation that can be practiced every day. 

10. Spend time outdoors

Ah, the great outdoors. It’s a beautiful and highly effective approach to stress management that can help regulate the sympathetic nervous system, according to the Mayo Clinic. Exposure to nature can be one of the most helpful ways to calm the nervous system and cope with high stress and mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. And the best part? It’s free and easily accessible.

So go ahead, touch some grass. It might not reset your nervous system in 30 seconds, but it could take as little as five minutes, per the Mayo Clinic.

—reviewed by Jennifer Gilbert, MD, MPH

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Yankouskaya, A.; Williamson, R.; Stacey, C.; Totman, J.J.; Massey, H. Short-Term Head-Out Whole-Body Cold-Water Immersion Facilitates Positive Affect and Increases Interaction between Large-Scale Brain Networks. Biology 202312, 211. https://doi.org/10.3390/biology12020211
  2. Brooks HL, Rushton K, Lovell K, Bee P, Walker L, Grant L, Rogers A. The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry. 2018 Feb 5;18(1):31. doi: 10.1186/s12888-018-1613-2. PMID: 29402247; PMCID: PMC5800290.

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