You have probably seen people in the mental health and mindfulness space talk about nervous system regulation. Nervous system regulation sounds complicated but once you understand some basics, it’s easy to see the immediate positive impact it can have on your life.
So, let’s go over the basics of what that means and why it matters to you.
Nervous System Regulation Basics
Nervous system regulation is a way to self-soothe when you feel like things are out of control.
“The two major nervous systems in the human body are the central (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral (mostly made up of nerves that carry signals through your body) systems. The autonomic nervous system, which is within the peripheral system, contains the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.” (Balancing Your Nervous System by Evolution Yoga | Dec 22, 2017 | Evolution Blog)
The sympathetic nervous system is where your fight or flight response originates. If you are in a demanding, stressful or threatening situation, your brain prepares your body to respond in a way that will ensure survival. Your reaction might be fight, escape (flight) or freeze. This will also slow down other processes in the body such as digestion, reproductive functioning and emotional processing to focus on survival.
The parasympathetic nervous system triggers your rest and digest response. It is responsible for regulating bodily functions when your body is at rest and especially after a demanding experience. This means activity in the brain and muscles have slowed down and you are in a healing, recovery and integration mode. It produces a reaction that balances the sympathetic nervous system response of fight, flight or freeze.
When we say you are nervous or something is getting on your nerves, you are talking about the sympathetic nervous system; and it can trigger a reaction throughout your body because it is getting ready for action.
Nervous System Activation + Your Physical Health
Your nervous system is the communicator in your body.
It guides everything you do from thinking your most complex thoughts to ongoing actions like breathing. It also senses problems within your body and sends messages to your organs and tissues to address what is going on. Your mental, emotional and physical health are all linked together.
Since they are all intertwined and affect one another, it’s important to focus on the five basics that are essential to create balance. We discussed these basics in a previous blog post – Which 5 Basics are Essential to Your Mental Health.
When your nervous system is activated you can experience physical responses such as increased heart rate, an increase in blood flow to the muscles, a decrease in blood flow to the skin, quick breathing, and a quick shot of glucose into your bloodstream.
“Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction.” (Harvard Health Publishing | STAYING HEALTHY Understanding the stress response, July 6, 2020)
Your physical health is not the only thing that can be affected by nervous system activation.
When your nervous system is activated, your ability to engage with others is compromised
Nervous system activation can happen in response to things as common as work stress, an overly busy schedule or being triggered by something emotionally.
When it is activated, your hearing, your ability to take in and make sense of information is compromised. Have you ever read a text message in a hurry and gotten activated, then come back to it later and realize it didn’t say or imply what you thought it did?
The nervous system activation you were experiencing when you read the message caused you to interpret the message differently.
Stress may cause you to withdraw from others. A common coping mechanism for people who are stressed out is to bottle up their feelings and not let others know, or if they do know, not allow them to help.
In contrast to withdrawal, stress may cause you to be irritable or lash out. This usually happens when you are already frustrated and something happens to send you over the edge.
Withdrawal and irritability both have a negative impact on your ability to engage with others; causing more distress.
It can be hard to know what the steps to take to get back to a place of balance and peace.
When your nervous system is activated, accessing coping strategies is much more difficult
Have you ever been stressed and someone suggested that you take some deep breaths? More than likely, you didn’t want anything to do with that suggestion even though you knew it was probably a good idea.
It’s important to know what you feel like when you are stressed. You can start by identifying how you feel when you are calm, and then take note of changes that you experience in your body when you are stressed. Your shoulders may tense up, you may get a headache, you may not be able to concentrate, etc.
Once you have noted all of your ‘symptoms’ of stress you should be able to catch the activation of your nervous system early and start to utilize coping strategies.
If you wait until you are right in the middle of a stressful situation then you may not be able to effectively implement coping strategies. You may not have the mental capacity at that point to productively deal with the problem.
This is why it’s crucial to take the time to attend to your nervous system before you tackle a problem or make any important decisions. Without nervous system regulation, clarity is compromised. Instead of looking for relief externally, focus inward on regulating the nervous system for relief. Then deal with the situation.
Stay tuned for our next post where we will talk about some ways to recognize that your nervous system is activated and how to support your nervous system.
Are you interested in learning more about how you can regulate your nervous system? Contact us today, we are happy to guide you through your next steps.