Nervous System Regulation Techniques: Calming Your Mind, Healing Your Body

By

Katie Rapkoch, CHPC

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Published on

June 05, 2024

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Updated on

June 05, 2024

Nervous System Regulation

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is fundamental in managing your body's involuntary bodily functions, like heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. When this often overactive nervous system is thrown out of balance by psychological or physical stressors, it can become dysregulated, leading to a plethora of mental and physical health challenges. This guide delves into the causes and symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system and nervous system regulation techniques to help you heal and enhance your overall well-being.1

In the re-origin program, we are dedicated to helping you regulate your nervous system in order to combat chronic stress and illness so you can feel like you again. If you'd like to hear more about re-origin, join our free info call.

What Causes a Dysregulated Nervous System?

A dysregulated nervous system often results from chronic stress, traumatic events, or persistent mental health issues or conditions, disrupting the normal equilibrium between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Such disruptions can trigger an overactive response mode, known as the "fight or flight" response, which can have detrimental effects on both physical and emotional health.2

What Are the Signs of a Dysregulated Nervous System?

Recognizing the signs of a dysregulated nervous system is crucial for timely and effective intervention. A dysregulated nervous system manifests through a range of symptoms that can significantly impair an individual's quality of life. These symptoms are indicative of an overactive sympathetic nervous system and an underactive parasympathetic system, which is essential for relaxation and recovery.

Physical and Mental Health Symptoms

The most common indicators of a dysregulated nervous system include:

  • Chronic Stress and Anxiety: Persistent feelings of stress or anxiety can exacerbate the sympathetic nervous system's activation, leading to a continuous "fight or flight" response. This state of hyperarousal can disrupt normal bodily functions and emotional health.3
  • Difficulty Concentrating and Cognitive Dysfunction: When the nervous system is overwhelmed, cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and decision-making can be impaired, making it challenging to perform everyday tasks or make clear decisions.4
  • Sleep Disturbances: Trouble falling asleep or maintaining sleep are typical signs of sympathetic nervous system dominance. Poor sleep quality affects overall health and impairs the nervous system's ability to recover from daily stressors.4
  • Chronic Pain: Dysregulation can lead to or exacerbate chronic pain conditions by altering pain pathways and inflammation responses within the body.4
  • Digestive Issues: The "brain-gut" connection is significant; thus, a dysregulated nervous system can lead to various gastrointestinal problems, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, and indigestion.4
  • Mood Disorders: Imbalances in nervous system activity can contribute to mood swings and disorders, including depression and anxiety, impacting an individual's emotional well-being and daily functioning.4

Impact on Physical Systems

Several systems are affected by nervous system dysregulation:

  • Blood Pressure Variability: An overactive sympathetic nervous system can cause fluctuations in blood pressure, leading to hypertension or feelings of dizziness.5
  • Stress Hormones Elevation: Continuous stress leads to elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which can have harmful long-term effects on physical health, including immune function and metabolic processes.5
  • Decreased Immune Function: Chronic stress and nervous system dysregulation can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and diseases.5

Parasympathetic Nervous System's Role

The parasympathetic nervous system plays a critical role in restoring balance by countering the sympathetic system's effects. It helps to slow down the heart rate, decrease blood pressure, and promote relaxation and digestion, thus supporting recovery and healing in the body.

Why is It Important to Regulate Your Nervous System?

Effective regulation of the nervous system is crucial for preserving both mental and physical health. It aids in restoring balance, reducing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, improving blood pressure and heart health, and boosting overall emotional well-being. Mastery over nervous system regulation helps you feel calm, creates a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and fosters resilience to physical and psychological stresses.2

What is the Therapy for Nervous System Regulation?

Therapies aimed at regulating the nervous system are diverse, each targeting different aspects of autonomic dysfunction and aiming to restore balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Here’s an elaboration on some of the most effective therapies, with examples and explanations of how they benefit nervous system regulation:

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing exercises are a cornerstone of nervous system regulation, as they directly stimulate the vagus nerve—key in activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, where you consciously engage the diaphragm to expand the abdomen rather than the chest, enhance vagal tone and promote relaxation. The physiological sigh, another powerful technique, involves taking two quick inhales followed by one long exhale and is particularly effective in quickly reducing feelings of acute stress.4

Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves focusing attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgment. Practices can range from seated mindfulness sessions, where participants focus on their breath or the environment around them while finding something pleasant in their surroundings, or mindful walking, where the focus is on the sensations of walking and the environment. This practice helps mitigate the stress response, reducing the production of stress hormones and enhancing emotional resilience. Over time, regular mindfulness practice can fundamentally alter the brain’s response to stress, leading to decreased reactivity in the sympathetic nervous system.6

Physical Activity

Engaging in regular physical activity is another effective therapy for regulating the nervous system. Exercise increases heart rate variability (HRV), an indicator of parasympathetic activity, and improves circulation, which helps in reducing the effects of stress hormones in the body. Aerobic exercises, such as jogging, swimming, or cycling, are particularly effective. However, even gentle forms of exercise like yoga and Tai Chi can significantly reduce stress and improve autonomic function by enhancing blood flow and promoting the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.3

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy, including modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, and trauma-focused therapies, addresses the emotional and psychological aspects of nervous system dysregulation. CBT helps patients identify and challenge the negative thought patterns that may trigger the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response. 

For deeper emotional issues or trauma, approaches like EMDR or sensorimotor psychotherapy are used to process and integrate traumatic memories safely, thereby reducing their trigger effect on the nervous system. These therapies are crucial for those whose dysregulation stems from psychological factors like anxiety, depression, toxic stress, or traumatic experiences.6

By integrating these therapies into a comprehensive treatment plan, individuals can significantly enhance their ability to regulate their nervous system, leading to improved physical health, immune function, mental clarity, and emotional stability. These therapies not only help manage symptoms but also address the root causes of dysregulation, promoting long-term well-being.

How to Fix a Dysregulated Nervous System with Everyday Activities

Repairing physical symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system involves integrating several practices into daily life:

  • Practice Brain Retraining: Elaborated on below, brain retraining can help you change your responses to stress, pain, or other experiences that cause nervous system dysregulation.
  • Maintain Consistent Sleep Patterns: Adequate sleep is crucial for regulating stress hormones and repairing nervous system functions.4
  • Support Through Nutrition: A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and essential vitamins supports nervous system health.1
  • Adopt Relaxation Routines: Practices such as guided non-sleep deep rest (NSDR), visualization, and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can significantly alleviate dysregulation symptoms.4

Neuroplasticity and Nervous System Regulation

Neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections, plays a vital role in nervous system regulation. Through the persistent practice of regulation techniques, the brain adapts to manage stress more effectively and recover from psychological impacts more robustly.7

Self-directed brain retraining is an active application of neuroplasticity and can help to regulate physiological responses in your nervous system. Using techniques like interrupting thought loops, cognitive reappraisal (reframing), visualization, and affirmations are powerful ways to calm your nervous system and create conditions that improve your overall response to stress. At re-origin, we offer a 28-day self-directed brain retraining program to teach you how to do exactly this!

re-origin’s Top Three Nervous System Regulation Techniques

How to Reset a Dysregulated Nervous System

In this video, Ben Ahrens, co-founder of re-origin, explains the limbic system and how 

Stressful events from the past can leave a lasting effect on you, impacting how you react in both the present and future. Intense emotions, negative thoughts, old behaviors, and past traumas can accumulate, creating a total stress load that may lead to dysregulation of the nervous system. This can make you feel constantly uneasy or on edge. 

He then takes you through a 60-second exercise to help you reset your on-edge nervous system in moments of high stress.

Regulate Your Nervous System via “Top Down” AND “Bottom Up” Techniques

In the video, Ben Ahrens, co-founder of re-origin, explains how to regulate the nervous system using the Top-Down and Bottom-Up approaches. He outlines that the Top-Down approach involves using the mind and brain to manage the nervous system, emphasizing the understanding that discomfort does not necessarily mean danger. 

This method encourages acknowledging and allowing agitated feelings to pass through and out of the body. On the other hand, the Bottom-Up approach focuses on using the body and senses to achieve regulation. It incorporates slow, deliberate breathing and movement to induce relaxation and help release feelings of being stuck.

Reset Your Nervous System with Bilateral Stimulation

Ben introduces several effective techniques for resetting the nervous system through bilateral stimulation. Aimed at those feeling overstimulated or those needing to achieve a flow state, the video demonstrates three primary exercises designed to synchronize brain hemispheres and promote balance.

How Long Does It Take to Regulate the Nervous System?

The duration required to regulate the central nervous system varies widely based on individual conditions, including the severity of dysregulation and lifestyle factors. Some individuals might experience improvements within weeks, while others may take longer to notice significant changes.6

Embracing a Balanced Life with Nervous System Regulation

Regulating the autonomic nervous system is essential for maintaining overall mental and physical health and crucial for enhancing one's quality of life. The techniques and therapies discussed—from deep breathing exercises and mindfulness meditation to engaging in regular physical activity and adopting nutritious diets—provide practical and effective ways to address and mend a dysregulated nervous system. 

It is important to remember that the journey towards nervous system regulation can vary greatly among individuals. The duration and effectiveness of these methods depend on several factors, including the extent of dysregulation, the individual's commitment to practice, and the overall physical and mental health and lifestyle adjustments they are willing to make.

Embracing these strategies can lead to significant improvements in emotional well-being, physical health, and cognitive function. As we harness the power of neuroplasticity and gain a deeper understanding of how our brain's adaptive capabilities help us better manage stress, respond to life's challenges more effectively, and ultimately achieve a more balanced and fulfilling life. 

Whether you are dealing with minor stress or more severe dysregulation symptoms, these nervous system regulation techniques offer a beacon of hope and a pathway to recovery, helping you restore balance and enhance resilience against future stressors.

Join our free info call to learn more about how the re-origin program can help you regulate your nervous system.

FAQ

What medicine is used for an overactive sympathetic nervous system? Beta-blockers are commonly prescribed to mitigate the effects of an overactive sympathetic nervous system by lowering heart rate and blood pressure. Please reach out to your healthcare professional to see if this may be an option for you.2

What is the best supplement for the nervous system? Supplements such as magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, and B vitamins are beneficial for supporting nerve function and overall nervous system health.1

Can trauma cause a dysregulated nervous system? Yes, experiences of trauma can lead to a dysregulated nervous system by maintaining the body in a constant state of heightened alertness, affecting both physical and emotional health. To address this, therapies that focus on trauma resolution and nervous system regulation are crucial. 

Techniques such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and sensorimotor psychotherapy can be effective. Additionally, incorporating stress reduction practices like the ones listed above can help recalibrate the nervous system, relieve stress, and promote healing and recovery.2

References

  1. The Mindful Center. (n.d.). Nervous system regulation. Retrieved from https://mindfulcenter.org/nervous-system-regulation/#:~:text=Therapy%20techniques%20for%20nervous%20system,physiological%20and%20emotional%20well%2Dbeing.
  2. Harvard Health Publishing. (2021). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
  3. Defense Technical Information Center. (2011). Measures of Autonomic Nervous System Regulation. Retrieved from https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/ADA555865
  4. Brittain, K., et al. (2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6137615/
  5. Aoki, Y., et al. (2009). Stress regulation in the central nervous system: evidence from structural and functional neuroimaging studies in human populations. ScienceDirect. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306453009000663
  6. Brittain, K., et al. (2023). Emotion Regulation, Parasympathetic Function, and Psychological Well-Being. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9381823/
  7. RxList. (n.d.). Medical definition of neuroplasticity. Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/neuroplasticity/definition.htm

By

Katie Rapkoch, CHPC

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