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Have you ever felt like your brain and body are fighting against you? Do you feel overwhelmed, anxious, and out of control more often than not? If so, you may be experiencing nervous system dysregulation. Imbalances in this system can be the source of several physical and mental health issues. Many people are unaware that their own nervous system is the root of the problem. As unfortunate as it is, nervous system dysregulation is common, but resources are scarce. We are on a mission to make this information more accessible, so please share it if it helps you.

This guide digs deep into the science behind the nervous system and offers several practical techniques you can implement today to nourish and recalibrate your nervous system. Step-by-step, through the implementation of these tools, you will find ease in your life. Let’s start with the basics.

What Is Nervous System Dysregulation?

Nervous System Dysregulation happens when your nervous system enters an endless state of survival; signaling danger throughout your body when, in reality, there is no life-threatening danger. This extended state of high alert causes unpleasant experiences such as anxiety, under- or over-reacting in any given situation, feeling scared, feeling unsafe in your body, panic attacks, overwhelm, depression, and feeling numb, disconnected, and dissociative. Basically, your brain and body stop working together the way they are designed to, which has the potential to take over every part of your life.

If you are struggling with any of these issues, you are not alone. Living with a dysregulated nervous system can be challenging and exhausting. When our nervous system is not functioning properly, we may find ourselves reacting in extreme ways to situations, either overreacting or becoming apathetic and withdrawing instead of interacting in a healthy way with life. This can get in the way of participating meaningfully in the world around us and living life to the fullest. When something as small as a misplaced item or an advertisement on television triggers extreme emotions of anger,  sadness, etc. daily life can become difficult.

Eventually, your body becomes so comfortable in survival mode that it can no longer naturally return to a state of balance, or homeostasis, on its own. Thoughtful intervention is needed. Thankfully, with dedication, you can re-regulate your nervous system, become free from the grip of fear, and return to a consistently peaceful state.

But how did we get here in the first place?

What causes the nervous system to go haywire?

Why does nervous system dysregulation happen?

Is it possible to bring the nervous system back into balance?

What Causes Nervous System Dysregulation?

Nervous system dysregulation can be caused by a single traumatic event, like a car accident or an abusive relationship, or by constant stress from being in a toxic environment for long periods of time.

When we experience an especially stressful event or a prolonged period of trauma, our bodies remain in a continual state of ‘fight or flight’. As this perpetuates, the effects become more and more negative. The brain perceives that we are in danger, and the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear to help us deal with the threat. After millions of years of evolution, the human nervous system has developed to detect and respond to potential dangers in our environment. This capacity is essential for ensuring our survival. It is an evolutionary mechanism that has served us well in the past but can cause problems in the present if it goes unchecked. Even minor triggers can activate a dysregulated nervous system. Anything that happens that causes the brain to perceive, however subconsciously, a threat to our survival causes the nervous system to go into protection mode.

Traumatic events that can lead to nervous system dysregulation include car accidents, natural disasters, physical abuse, sexual abuse, military combat, etc. But the way we make sense of a traumatic experience is more important than what happened itself. According to the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, it is not the events themselves that disturb us but rather our perspective or interpretation of them. So, it’s not the event itself that causes nervous system dysregulation, but our perception of the event and how we deal with it. It is the story we tell ourselves about the event that has a lasting impact, whether positive or negative.

For example, someone who experienced a car accident may have been able to process the event and move on with their life without any long-term effects. But someone who was in the same car accident and blames themselves for what happened may struggle with anxiety, depression, and survivor’s guilt long after the event has passed. So, even a one-time event can cause nervous system dysregulation if it is intense enough.

Exposure to toxins can also lead to nervous system dysregulation. Toxins can come from the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the products we use. They can be physical, such as heavy metals and pesticides, or emotional, such as verbal abuse and manipulation.

The first step to healing a dysregulated nervous system is to understand how the stress response works. Let’s start with the basics.

How Does Nervous System Dysregulation Happen? According to Science

When your body perceives a potential threat, it releases stress hormones that prepare you to fight or take flight, by manipulating things like your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. A threat appears, and our bodies react before we even have a chance to think about it, potentially saving our lives. 

However, this stress response is meant to be temporary. Chronic activation of survival mode can lead to nervous system dysregulation. When we are repeatedly subjected to stressful situations and lack the coping skills to deal with that stress, the nervous system approaches dysregulation. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to bring your system back into balance, which we will discuss later in this guide.

When a stressful event is experienced, the amygdala, a part of the brain that facilitates the processing of emotion, sends a signal of distress to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus acts as a sort of command center for the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary processes like heart rate and digestion. In response to the amygdala’s signal, the hypothalamus sends out its own set of orders via the sympathetic nervous system to the pituitary gland, which awakens the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands then release adrenaline through the bloodstream. This triggers the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response. This all occurs before our brains can even visually grasp what is happening.

The problem is that when stress becomes chronic, the amygdala gets stuck in a state of high alert and keeps sending out distress signals to the hypothalamus, which keeps sending out orders to the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline. This response was meant to be used in short bursts for survival, not for long-term exposure. When these hormones are continually released, it takes a toll on our bodies and can lead to nervous system dysregulation, resulting in inescapable fight, flight, and freeze states. This can manifest into serious health problems like high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc.

Autonomic Nervous System: Balancing Two Opposites

The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are always carrying out their tasks simultaneously. The systems serve the same areas but are completely opposite in their effects. For example, one stimulates the heart rate, while the other causes a decrease in heart rate.

If the nervous system is healthy, the two systems are in seamless balance with each other in correspondence with the environment. When there is no danger, the parasympathetic nervous system keeps sympathetic nervous system activity in check; when there is a real danger, the parasympathetic nervous system shuts down its activities so that the sympathetic nervous system can focus on dealing with that dangerous situation. All this happens without us having to think about it.

The nervous system is considered dysregulated when there is an imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system can no longer automatically determine which system needs to be active at any given time. Instead, it will chronically over-activate the sympathetic nervous system, causing strong emotions (such as fear, anger, and sadness) and physical complaints (such as high blood pressure or migraine headaches).

Chronic Stress Response

Your sympathetic nervous system is like a security guard, constantly on the lookout for danger. When it perceives a threat, it activates your fight-or-flight response, releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help you deal with the threat, but they also have some unpleasant side effects, like making your heart race and making you feel jittery. Normally, once the threat has passed, your sympathetic nervous system will go back to its normal state. However, if you’re constantly under stress, it can get stuck in a chronic stress response.

The sympathetic nervous system is not designed for sustained activation; it’s meant to be a short-term response to an immediate threat. Unfortunately, in our modern world, we are exposed to more chronic stressors (such as work deadlines, financial worries, and family conflict) that can keep our sympathetic nervous system turned on for too long. This can lead to problems such as anxiety, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating.

The good news is that there are things we can do to help break the cycle of chronic stress. Exercise, relaxation techniques, and spending time in nature are all great ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote a state of calm. By taking steps to reduce our exposure to chronic stressors and incorporating some self-care into our daily routine, we can help prevent the sympathetic nervous system from getting stuck in a chronic stress response.

What Are the Symptoms of Nervous System Dysregulation?

The nervous system is a highly sensitive master control system of the body. It regulates and coordinates all the body’s activities. So when something goes haywire, it can alter every part of our lives. A dysregulated nervous system will often cause us to respond inappropriately—disproportionally, that is, to what life throws at us. Our nervous systems have gotten really good at protecting us from danger. When the nervous system is imbalanced, it can start protecting us from perceived danger that isn’t really harmful at all. This is where anxiety disorders develop. You know your nervous system is dysregulated when you start responding to life in ways that don’t match up with reality. Instead, your responses are the result of some past situation or experience. This often happens because you are responding to something in the present as if it were in the past.

This may be expressed both in the body and in our mental processes. Nervous system dysregulation can cause a wide range of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. These symptoms can vary from person to person and can also change over time, but here are some of the most common:

    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Chronic stress
    • Irritability
    • Mood swings
    • Fatigue
    • Insomnia
    • Headaches
    • Digestive issues
    • Muscle pain
    • Weight gain or loss
    • Memory problems
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • PMS or other hormone imbalances

Trauma & the Nervous System

For many people today, the incessant stress they have encountered during their formative years and/or adulthood has disturbed their nervous systems to the extent that they no longer run efficiently.

For this reason, it is important to recognize that even if we have the best tools available to us, they will not be of much use if our nervous system remains stuck in a dysregulated state. In order to restore balance to our minds and bodies, it is necessary to address the underlying causes of our stress, such as trauma.

Trauma can have a profound effect on our nervous systems, and left unaddressed, it can leave us feeling stuck in cycles of chronic stress. Due to the accumulation of unexpressed stress responses from our past, we become ‘hyper-responsive’ (hypersensitive) or ‘hypo-responsive’ (defensive, shut down). We get stuck in the swing between overreacting and completely checking out. These unresolved stress responses are often hidden within the body and can cause problems.

Power of the Mind-Body Connection: Regulating the Nervous System

There is hope. With the help of both modern and ancient techniques, you can rewire your brain and regulate your nervous system. We can retrain our nervous system to respond differently to potential threats by using a variety of techniques that work to down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system and up-regulate the parasympathetic system.

In fact, some research suggests that even just thinking about the parasympathetic nervous system can help reduce stress levels. So even the most basic visualization of activating calm in your body is bringing your nervous system further towards balance. To create a healthier pattern, it is essential to first set up an exemplary standard and then strive towards embodying that pattern.

What Is a Regulated Nervous System?

So what’s it like to have a regulated nervous system? Some of us have lived for so long with an inconsistent or dysregulated nervous system that we have completely forgotten how it feels to experience safety. It is important to have a model of what a healthy nervous system looks like so we can pause and consciously mimic its reactions as we work to build new patterns.

A healthy nervous system regulates itself flexibly to allow us to move smoothly through our experiences. When your body is in balance, you feel relaxed and connected to yourself. You are able to interact with the world with ease, feeling calm when necessary and being able to tap into emotion when appropriate. You can think clearly, make decisions based on facts instead of fear, and be present in each moment without feeling overwhelmed or anxious. A regulated nervous system allows us to be present and responsive in our lives, instead of reactive or numb. Learning and decision-making can become easier when they are not influenced by fear or perceived danger. We feel safe in our bodies and have the capacity to experience joy and pleasure without worry or guilt.

Situation A

Someone has a different opinion about something than you do.

Responses from a dysregulated nervous system: anxiety, fear, and feelings of aggression.

Response from a regulated nervous system: openness to hearing the other person’s perspective, curiosity, and willingness to learn.

Situation B

Your partner says that you guys need to have a talk.

Response from the dysregulated nervous system: You become overwhelmed with fear. Your heart rate increases, and you begin to worry intensely? Did they decide they didn’t love you anymore? Are they breaking up with you?

Response from a regulated nervous system: You feel concerned but remain calm. You can logically consider the different possibilities and choose how to proceed. You feel butterflies, but your overall response is one of curiosity. You can sense the tension, but you remain curious and open. You don’t jump to negative conclusions because you trust yourself to handle whatever comes up.

Situation C

Your friend is late for dinner.

Response from the dysregulated nervous system: You become angry and defensive. You think that they have forgotten about the plans. Your heart rate increases, and you feel disappointed that your friend isn’t respecting you or your time. How could they do this to you?

Response from a regulated nervous system: You may feel a twinge of disappointment, but you don’t become overwhelmed. Instead, you take a few deep breaths and decide to use this extra time to do something enjoyable, like read your favorite book or call a friend, instead of taking things personally. You know that things come up and people are busy, so you give them the benefit of the doubt.

It is possible to retrain your nervous system and begin to experience this type of regulated behavior in situations that previously had you feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Through mindful practice, breathing techniques, and emotional regulation skills, we can learn to reset our nervous systems and look at the world from a place of safety rather than fear. With conscious effort, these techniques can help us create new patterns so that dysregulation will no longer be the norm.

If this sounds like a far-off dream for you, don’t worry, you are in the right place. Often, we have to retrain our nervous system to feel safe.

Nervous System Regulation Exercise

It takes time to create new pathways and patterns. As you heal your nervous system, it helps to have tools you can use in the moment of a reactive episode so you can start to avoid the spiral of suffering as soon as possible. It can be incredibly difficult to break the cycle of negative and fear-based thinking that stems from a dysregulated nervous system. However, with dedication and conscious intervention, you can choose to respond instead of react. This action is compounding and, with enough dedication, will eventually become your default. Here is an exercise to help keep your cool when your nervous system starts to spiral:

Pause

Take a moment to pause and create space between the triggering event and your response. This step allows you to interrupt the automatic reaction and choose a more intentional response. You can pause by:

  • Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly.
  • Counting to 10 or taking a short break to gather your thoughts.
  • Stepping away from the situation temporarily, if possible, to give yourself time to process.

Example: “I notice that I’m feeling overwhelmed right now. I’m going to take a pause and give myself a moment to gather my thoughts before responding.”

Breathe

Focus on your breath to help calm your nervous system and bring your attention back to the present moment. Deep, slow breaths can help activate the relaxation response. You can try:

  • Taking slow, deep breaths in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
  • Paying attention to the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body.
  • Using a breathing technique, such as diaphragmatic breathing or box breathing, to regulate your breath.

Example: “I’m going to take a few deep breaths to center myself and calm my nervous system. Inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly.”

Bring Awareness

Bring your attention to the present moment and observe your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judgment. This practice of mindfulness helps create a sense of detachment from intense emotions and brings clarity to the situation. You can:

  • Notice and acknowledge what you’re experiencing internally without trying to change it.
  • Label your emotions or thoughts as they arise, such as “I’m feeling anxious” or “I’m having negative thoughts.”
  • Observe any physical sensations in your body, like tension or tightness, and allow them to be present without resistance.

Example: “I’m bringing awareness to my thoughts and emotions without judgment. I notice that I’m feeling frustrated, and there’s tension in my shoulders.”

Ground Yourself

Grounding techniques help you connect with the present moment and your surroundings. They provide a sense of stability and safety, reducing feelings of anxiety or dissociation. Try:

  • Feeling your feet firmly planted on the ground and becoming aware of the support beneath you.
  • Engaging your senses by noticing the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or textures around you.
  • Practicing physical grounding exercises like squeezing a stress ball, touching a textured object, or splashing cold water on your face.

Example: “I’m grounding myself by feeling the floor beneath my feet and noticing the sound of the birds outside. This helps me feel more present and centered.”

Support Yourself

Provide yourself with self-compassion, understanding, and encouragement during difficult experiences. Use supportive and nurturing language to counteract negative self-talk. You can:

  • Speak to yourself kindly and reassuringly, using phrases like “I’m doing the best I can” or “It’s okay to feel this way.”
  • Offer yourself words of encouragement or affirmation, such as “I have overcome challenges before, and I can do it again” or “I am resilient and strong.”
  • Practice self-care activities that bring you comfort and relaxation, like taking a warm bath, listening to calming music, or engaging in a hobby you enjoy.

Example: “I’m going to support myself by practicing self-compassion. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, and I’m doing my best in this situation. I’ll take some time for self-care later to recharge.”

Remember, these steps and examples are just suggestions, and it’s important to find what works best for you personally. Over time, with practice and dedication, these techniques can help you regulate your nervous system and respond to difficult experiences in a more empowered and balanced way.

Nervous System Regulation Techniques

Here are some of the most helpful tools for building new pathways and calming your nervous system:

Breathwork

Breathwork is the practice of consciously focusing on your breath and deliberately changing the pattern or intensity of your breaths. This helps to slow down the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic system, bringing calmness to the body. Deep abdominal breathing can be particularly effective at calming a dysregulated nervous system as it directs oxygen towards our internal organs and helps relax the muscles of the body.

Affirmations

Affirmations are positive statements that we repeat to ourselves in order to change our mindset and beliefs. When we focus on negative thoughts, we activate the stress response and further dysregulate the nervous system. Affirmations help us to focus on more positive and supportive thoughts, which eventually become ingrained in our belief system. This helps to create a sense of safety and security, reducing the flight-or-fight response.

Grounding Exercises

Grounding exercises help bring us back into the present moment. When we become dysregulated, our thoughts often take us away from the here and now as we think about past events or future possibilities. Grounding exercises help us to stay in the present moment and can include activities such as looking around the room, noticing objects in your environment, or focusing on the sensations of your body.

Mindfulness-Based Practices

Mindfulness is a practice centered around focusing on the present moment without judgment or attachment. It encourages self-acceptance, non-judgmental awareness, and open observation of our internal experience. Mindfulness practices are incredibly effective at resetting the nervous system and can help us gain insight into our emotions, recognize patterns of thinking or behavior, and increase our capacity for self-compassion.

Yoga

Yoga is a practice that combines physical movement with conscious breathwork and mindfulness. It has been found to be particularly effective at helping to regulate the nervous system and improve the overall balance of our mind and body.

Meditation

Meditation is another practice that has been found to be incredibly beneficial for calming a dysregulated nervous system, as it helps us to create inner stillness and reduce stress levels.

Cold Therapy

Cold therapy is the practice of exposing our bodies to cold temperatures in order to help regulate the nervous system. For example, immersing ourselves in colder temperatures for short periods of time can help stimulate our sympathetic nervous systems and activate the ‘rest and digest’ response of our parasympathetic system.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a type of body-scanning technique that involves sequentially tensing and then releasing different muscle groups in the body. This practice helps to bring awareness and balance to our bodies, as it encourages us to pay attention to the sensations within each area of our body and understand how we are responding to stress.

Guided Imagery / Visualization

Guided imagery/visualization is a practice where we use our imagination to focus on positive images, sounds, or sensations. It helps us to connect with the physical and emotional states that are associated with relaxation, which can help reduce tension in the body and bring balance back to our nervous system.

Journaling

Writing things down can be incredibly helpful in understanding and addressing our emotions. Journaling is a practice where we express our thoughts, feelings, and experiences through writing. It allows us to gain insight into our experience and can help us make sense of what’s going on emotionally or mentally. Additionally, it gives us the opportunity to reflect on our thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way, which can help regulate the nervous system.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a technique that uses monitoring devices to measure and provide awareness of bodily functions. This practice helps us understand how our body is responding to stress and can assist in teaching us skills for relaxation and self-regulation, which can help bring balance back to the nervous system.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a practice that uses guided relaxation and visualization to help change our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It focuses on helping us to access the subconscious mind in order to facilitate self-change and can be very effective in addressing dysregulation of the nervous system by helping us to bring awareness to our emotions and reactions to stress.

Counseling / Therapy

Counseling or therapy is a great way to address dysregulation of the nervous system. A therapist can provide support, guidance, and education about healthy coping skills that can help us to reset our nervous systems. Through counseling, we can learn how to recognize our triggers and develop strategies for managing stress in more helpful ways.

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy is a type of talk therapy that focuses on helping us become more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It works with the physical body as well as the mind and helps us to become mindful of how we react in response to stressors.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that involves inserting thin needles into specific acupuncture points in the body. It is believed that this practice helps to restore balance and regulate the nervous system by stimulating energy pathways in the body.

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is the practice of using plants to treat various physical and mental ailments. It can be used to treat dysregulation of the nervous system by helping to reduce stress and promote relaxation in the body. These are just a few techniques for addressing dysregulation of the nervous system. As always, it’s important to speak to your healthcare provider about which treatment plan is best for you.

EFT

EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) is a form of energy psychology that involves tapping on various acupuncture points on the body while focusing on a particular issue or emotion. This practice helps to bring balance back to the nervous system by releasing built-up emotional stress and promoting relaxation in the body.

TRE

The practice of Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) is a great way to help release tension in the body and help regulate the nervous system. Through trauma work you can figure out what is behind the feelings. From there, you can learn to re-regulate your nervous system and start responding in a healthy way to life.

Nutrition & Supplementation

The food we eat plays an essential role in how our nervous system functions. Eating a balanced and nutritious diet can help to fuel the brain, regulate hormones, and support the immune system – all of which are important for maintaining a healthy state of mind. Additionally, supplementing with certain vitamins and minerals can be beneficial for overall mental health.

Inner Work

Doing inner work is a great way to go beyond just the physical and start addressing any underlying issues. This could be digging deep into our past and exploring the root cause of any dysregulation, or simply focusing on self-awareness and cultivating a space for openness and understanding. Doing inner work can help us understand ourselves better, become more conscious of our triggers, and ultimately learn how to regulate the nervous system.

Body Scans – Checking in With Bodily Sensations

Your body is constantly talking to you, sending you signals about how it’s feeling. But sometimes, those signals can be difficult to interpret. That’s especially true when it comes to stress and anxiety, which can manifest in all sorts of physical ways. If you’re wondering what’s going on inside your body when you feel stressed out, then read on – we’ll explain the somatic nervous system in simple terms.

Conclusion

It is important to understand that addressing dysregulation of the nervous system is an on-going process that requires conscious effort. It is beneficial to continue exploring different approaches and deepening our understanding of how our mind and body are interconnected. Additionally, it helps to be gentle with ourselves in order to cultivate acceptance and increase our capacity for self-regulation.

By utilizing these techniques and practices, we can start to create inner stillness and reduce stress levels. With an improved understanding of how our body responds to different stimuli, we can begin to regulate the nervous system in a more meaningful way. Our journey towards balance is an ongoing process that requires commitment and self-compassion. With a little bit of effort and understanding, we can take steps to achieve the inner peace that we all desire.

Overall, there are many different techniques available to help us regulate our nervous system and gain balance in our lives. It’s important to recognize when you are feeling dysregulated, and to choose the practices that best suit your needs. With consistent practice and dedication, you can successfully reset your nervous system and promote wellbeing in both body and mind. 

No matter what techniques you choose to use, it’s important to be patient with yourself and remember that it takes time to restore balance within your nervous system. Regular practice is key, so make sure you incorporate these strategies into your daily routine in order to achieve the peace of mind you deserve.

 

Written by Jordan Buchan

Jordan is the founder of Conscious Cues. Her work is centered around the mind-body connection as it is explored through neuroscience, yoga, meditation, and other healing practices.