After more than two years of dealing with a global pandemic, it’s safe to say our nervous systems have taken a beating. Many people have been living with chronic stress as a result of work stress, health issues, financial difficulties, or other pandemic-related challenges. As you can imagine, this has a significant impact on your overall well-being and can result in a dysregulated nervous system. Experts explain how the nervous system becomes out of balance, what warning signs to look for, and actionable tips to help regulate your nervous system.
Why Does the Nervous System Dysfunction?
According to Judy Ho, Ph.D., a licensed and triple board-certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, stress, poor sleep, traumatic events, relationship conflict, depression, chronic anxiety, and difficulty managing frustration can all cause the nervous system to become dysregulated.
Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, mental health expert, and host of the Cleaning Up The Mental Mess podcast, explains that the job of our mind, specifically the unconscious mind, is to interpret stimuli—both internal (sadness, anxiety, anger, etc.) and external (stressful situations) stimuli—and decide how to react. Essentially, the mind is always on the lookout for signs of danger and stress in order to prompt us to act and protect ourselves.
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When faced with stressors such as a global pandemic or social rejection, the mind will send messages to the body that can manifest as anxiety and depressive symptoms. “These signals are attempting to point to areas of our lives that are causing us harm—they are messengers,” explains Dr. Leaf. However, when these stressors occur over time and become repeated events, they can lead to dysregulation in the mind, brain, and body.
What Happens to Your Nervous System When It Is Dysregulated?
The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic (also known as the “rest and digest” state), and when your nervous system is dysregulated, it loses balance. “The sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of dealing with stressful incidents and emergencies, becomes overly dominant,” explains Dr. Ho. As a result, your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you relax and sleep, is “unable to exert any significant control over how you are feeling, thinking, or behaving,” according to Dr. Ho. In other words, the “fight or flight” response becomes overly active, putting your body on high alert.
Long-term stressors, such as a global pandemic, can cause a constant state of unease, uncertainty, and worry, according to Dr. Leaf. “These traumatic experiences manifest in our physiology, making our body believe we are constantly in a state of emergency, and this is where the term dysregulation comes in,” Dr. Leaf explains. When our brain and body are constantly stressed or traumatized, they become less and less able to enter the rest and digest state, which can have an impact on our mental and physical health.
Signs that you Need to Regulate your Nervous System
So, how do you know you need to regulate your nervous system? According to Dr. Ho, you will have many symptoms that feel like fight or flight reactions, such as difficulty focusing and regulating emotions, sleep disturbances, digestive issues, physical manifestations of emotional symptoms such as headaches or unexplained body pains, and physiological responses such as heart racing, dizziness, and feeling out of control. Other signs, according to Dr. Leaf, include body tension, sudden feelings of panic or dread, or experiencing a “sudden ‘explosion’ of emotions in situations that do not necessarily require a drastic response.”
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Ways to Regulate your Nervous System
Although the programming of your nervous system is influenced by many environmental factors that you cannot control, you can reprogram it by changing the input. To regulate your nervous system, you should prioritize self-care and stress reduction. Everyone defines self-care differently, but there are some key steps you can take to calm and regulate your nervous system.
#1. Concentrate on your breathing.
Mindful, deep breathing is an astonishingly powerful tool, particularly for recalibrating your nervous system. Stress can be reduced by concentrating on your breathing. The vagus nerve lowers your heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels when you breathe deeply.
Breathing exercises can help tell your body that there is no immediate danger and reduce the stress response, especially when it is unnecessary, thereby helping to regulate your nervous system and prevent hyperactivity.
#2. Allow your thoughts to wander.
When your nervous system is overstimulated, removing yourself from all forms of stimulation is an excellent way to refocus. Allowing your mind to wander is an excellent way to accomplish this. You should try to imagine a positive image in your mind and let your thoughts flow into it, taking in the scenery and visualizing yourself as a part of it.
Meditation is another excellent nervous system practice because it allows you to become aware of and sort through your thoughts. This can help you calm your nervous system, manage stressful thoughts, and deal with stressful events in the future, preventing dysregulation.
#3. Implement better sleeping habits
Many nervous system issues can be caused or exacerbated by sleep. The parasympathetic nervous system relaxes your body, lowers your heart rate, and promotes restful sleep. Poor sleeping habits, on the other hand, can make it difficult for your body to distinguish between rest and activity. You can train your body to relax by practicing healthy sleep habits such as avoiding screens and intense exercise before bed.
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Sleep is also essential for nervous system regulation because it allows your sympathetic nervous system to rest. As a result, you should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
#4. Engage in some light exercise.
During exercise, both parts of the nervous system work together to keep your heart rate under control. The sympathetic nervous system works to raise your heart rate in order to support your body’s ability to perform, whereas the parasympathetic nervous system works to keep your heart rate from becoming too high. Putting these systems to work in a healthy manner can aid in the restoration of regulated function.
When you exercise, your body produces endorphins, which are hormones that make you happy. These hormones aid in informing your body that you are not in danger and aid in reducing the stress that strains your nervous system. As a result, your parasympathetic nervous system will activate to assist you in relaxing.
If you prefer intense exercise, include a warm-up and a cool-down to allow your nervous system to distinguish between exercise and rest, preventing the sympathetic nervous system from overpowering the parasympathetic. A little exercise each day can help regulate the nervous system in either case.
#5. Visualize your feelings
Dr. Ho claims that when we are dysregulated, our feelings become amplified, making it difficult to control them. She suggests visualizing yourself taking whatever emotion you’re feeling (say, overwhelm), and putting it in front of you to help create boundaries between you and the sentiment to help with this. She goes on to say that you can even manipulate emotion. For example, if you imagine the emotion as a heavy bowling ball, you can compress it to the size of a tennis ball, making it easier to handle.
#6. Include Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet
Omega-3 fatty acids are the best example of healthy fat that supports the nervous system. Regular intake of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may have a significant impact on central nervous system function. Many cells’ membranes contain omega-3 fatty acids, and DHA helps form the foundation of many neural cells, supporting healthy growth and function.
At the same time, EPA acts as a regulating force in the body by producing eicosanoids, which aid in homeostasis by regulating nervous functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, EPA collaborates with and supports the parasympathetic nervous system’s functions.
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These two omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and others. However, not everyone wants to eat fish, whether for dietary reasons, environmental concerns, or animal welfare concerns. Fortunately, algae, which is high in DHA and EPA, is another excellent source of omega-3s.
Iwi’s unique algae-based omega-3 supplement makes it simple to get your daily dose of these essential fatty acids without a fishy aftertaste or smell, allowing you to support your nervous system and overall well-being.
Both parts of your nervous system are essential to the daily functioning of your body. Short-term stress can serve as a healthy guide for your body in dangerous or pressing situations, but when stress persists beyond the urgent scenario, it can have a negative impact on your overall health and wellness. You can help regulate your nervous system by providing your body with essential nutrients and incorporating healthy daily practices.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I naturally regulate my nervous system?
The following are some techniques for calming your nervous system.
- Explore moderate-to-intense movement forms.
- Create an electronic sabbath.
- Seek out the sun and nature.
- Spend quality time with your pets and loved ones.
- Investigate activities that cause you to lose track of time.
- Improve your spiritual practice.
Can you reset your nervous system?
While you cannot truly “reset” your nervous system, you can take steps to restore it through relaxation techniques and other practices.
What calms the nervous system?
There are numerous ways to train your parasympathetic nervous system. Mild exercise, meditation, yoga, diaphragmatic breathing, and even nature walks are examples. Traditional meditation may not be for everyone. It’s about discovering your body’s method of meditation, which helps you decompress.
What are the top 3 common nervous system disorders?
Epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke are among the most common.
Neurological disorders are diseases of the central and peripheral nervous systems, which means they occur in the brain, spine, and the numerous nerves that connect them.