5 Ways To Regulate Your Nervous System, According to a Neuroscientist
Why the nervous system becomes dysregulated
Stress, poor sleep, traumatic events, relationship conflict, depression, chronic anxiety, and difficulty managing frustration 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.
When it comes to stressors like a global pandemic or dealing with social rejection, the mind will send messages to the body that can look like anxiousness and depressive symptoms. “These signals are trying to point to areas of our life that are harming us—they are messengers,” Dr. 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 you're 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,” Dr. 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,” Dr. Ho says. In other words, the "fight or flight" response becomes overly active, putting your body in a very stressful, high-alert state.
Dr. Leaf says long-term stressors like a global pandemic 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,” Dr. 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? Dr. 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, and physiological responses such as heart racing, dizziness, and feeling out of control. Dr. 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.”
Ways to regulate your nervous system
1. Take deep breaths
Deep breathing is 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,” Dr. Ho explains. In particular, she recommends doing a box breath exercise by inhaling for four counts, holding for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and holding for 4 counts. Then repeat for a total of 10 rounds.
2. Follow the 30-90 second rule
When you experience something (an event, conversation, etc.), Dr. 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, Dr. Leaf recommends practicing the 30-90 second rule to help reinstate neurophysiological calm in the brain and body. The 30-90 second rule entails doing the following three things sequentially in a 60 to 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. And lastly, do something physical like stretching or burpees.
3. Visualize your emotions
In moments of dysregulation, Dr. Ho says our feelings can feel amplified, making it hard to get a hold of them. To help with this, she recommends 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.
4. Practice detailed mind wandering
Another way Dr. 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,” Dr. 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.”
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, Dr. 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.
Dr. 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.
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