Nervous System Dysregulation
Do you often feel keyed up, shaky and unsettled? Does your heart start pounding, your breathing race, and your muscles tense with stress, conflict, or fear? How about feeling low energy, lethargic, dissociated, or shut down? Depressed or foggy or checked out? These can be signs of nervous system dysregulation.
When our nervous systems are regulated, on the other hand, we feel calm, clear, safe, and are available for connection with others and ourselves. How much time do you spend in this state?
Here’s a little physiology to help explain. Our autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous systems are activated when we’re in danger; they’re responsible for “fight or flight.” The increase in heart rate or breathing rate, the sweating, adrenaline rush, or muscle tension you feel when you have to give a speech or stop short just behind the car in front of you, or when someone disregards you or a loved one? That’s your sympathetic nervous system kicking into gear. Our parasympathetic nervous systems work in opposition, calming us and slowing us down. They allow us to “rest and digest.” Sometimes, however, the brakes are pumped so hard that our nervous systems shut down or go into “collapse.” This is actually an adaptive mechanism when our systems judge that a threat is too dangerous to fight or impossible to flee. In extreme cases, our bodies freeze and “play dead,” slowing down, circulating natural painkillers to protect us from predator aggression. Freeze responses are common in trauma survivors and include the experiences of numbness, restricted breathing, and a sense of dread. A freeze response can also present as lethargy, fogginess, or dissociation.
Fight, flight, or freeze can occur in a single moment or can become places we linger. Our nervous systems often become dysregulated over time with trauma, frequent stress, or other experiences that overwhelm our abilities to experience activation and then return fairly quickly to our baseline functioning.
When chronically dysregulated, we may experience a number of physical and psychological symptoms and conditions. Anxiety, depression, illness, and chronic pain are common consequences of living with a habitually overwhelmed nervous system.
Nervous System Regulation Practices
No matter what has dysregulated us, whether our stress is situational or chronic, or if we tend toward sympathetic arousal (fight or flight) or collapse (freeze), there are certain practices we can adopt to aid us with nervous system regulation and to help us return more regularly to safety and connection. Let’s take a look at some of them here.
1) Breathe: Our breath is a reliable pathway toward nervous system regulation. To calm our systems, we can take deep, consistent breaths, breathing beyond the chest into our diaphragms and bellies. Shallow chest breathing, on the other hand, can increase anxiety and activation. In DBT, we teach the skill, paced breathing, which focuses on spending more time exhaling than inhaling. The more time we can spend in the out-breath, the more we can calm our systems. This might look like doing some formal paced breathing, sighing intentionally, or just becoming more mindful of slowing and steadying the breath.
2) Spend time in nature: Being in nature can aid in nervous system regulation. Do you have regular proximity to greenery? Are there trees or gardens nearby? If not, is there a way that you can access similar green spaces or even bring nature indoors by growing plants in your home? How about water? Do you have access to bodies of water, waterfalls, etc.? Can you find water nearby? If you live in an urban environment, are there parks with ponds or fountains you can frequent? Even just getting some fresh air or walking (safely) barefoot outside can be grounding and stabilizing. And you can also view images/videos of nature and listen to nature sounds indoors to simulate this effect. Try pulling up images or videos of forests, ocean tides, or waterfalls or listen to the manufactured sounds of ocean waves, rain, or other nature sounds to experience this effect.
3) Engage in physical activity: Moving our bodies is healing and can contribution to nervous system regulation. In DBT, we teach the skill, Intense Exercise, as a distress tolerance skill to be used when significantly emotionally dysregulated. We also talk about exercise as one of the PLEASE skills, a set of skills that can reduce our vulnerability to intense emotions. The intensity of exercise can vary depending on what you and your nervous systems are needing, from stretching/yoga to intense, interval training, if accessible to you. Moving out bodies tends to be rhythmic, which can itself be stabilizing, and allows for a discharge of energy, which can activate or calm our nervous systems, depending on what we need.
4) Listen to music: Music, too, can help regulate our systems. The rhythm and prosody in what we hear can have a significant impact on our minds and bodies. Certain types of music speed us up; certain types calm us down. We can choose a genre and type of song depending on the desired effect.
5) Connect with others: Humans evolved to find safety and soothing when in connection with others. Do you have anyone in your life that helps you feel safe and connected? Can you seek them out? If not, how about an animal? Can you imagine a safe person (maybe someone who is no longer alive, someone you’ve never met, an ideal person) who offers you comfort and support? Picture yourself in close proximity to this person, benefitting from this close connection.
6) Take time away from your devices: Scrolling, checking email, or playing games on our devices can be soothing but can also become quite addicting. Most of us are chronically overstimulated from the constant notifications and multitasking associated with using our devices. If you want to experiment with the impact of this overstimulation, try setting some boundaries around your use. Can you go an entire day without using your device? If that’s too much, can you try putting your phone away for a couple of hours at a time? Howe about shutting off all devices a hour or two before bedtime? That can help reduce activation enough for sleep to come more easily. If you do take some time away from your screen, what do you notice? It might surprise you.
7) Engage your senses: Bringing our attention to our senses can help us with nervous system regulation. We might self-soothe through the senses, seeking out relaxation or calming through sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Or we might use our senses to help invigorate us, making contact with sensory stimuli that is more energizing, such as upbeat music, strong smells, etc. The idea here is to focus on your senses and then seek out content that can help you regulate in the direction that you need.
8) Create art: Accessing our creativity can increase nervous system regulation. Maybe you paint or make jewelry, write or take photographs. Being creative can allow us to return to state a safety and connection. It lowers stress and anxiety and increases focus and hope. There are benefits to consuming art too, viewing paintings, listening to a symphony, watching a ballet. Notice what kinds of art allow you to feel more regulated.
9) Access self-compassion: It’s hard to regulate our systems when we’re judging and attacking ourselves. A self-compassion practice can be an important part of healing and of nervous system regulation. Self-compassion might sound like, “I’m doing the best I can,” or “This is hard for me right now,” or any other sentiment that validates our experiences and responds with kindness and compassion.
Our nervous systems can become chronically dysregulated with stress, burnout, or trauma, but we don’t have to live like this forever. Adopting some of these practices can help us regulate our nervous systems, finding peace and calm or more energy and aliveness when we notice we’re off center. Using them can allow us to return to a state of safety and connection, with others and ourselves.