Nervous System Regulation: How to Start Regulating Your Nervous System
I always talk about the importance of regulating your nervous system. But what does that mean, exactly? And how do you go about doing it? In this blog post, I will explore those questions and provide some strategies for getting started with healing a dysregulated nervous system. Since regulating your nervous system is critical for functioning as a human being, let’s look at how you might apply it to your unique circumstances
What is the nervous system?
Before learning how to regulate your nervous system, we must first understand how the nervous system works.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system, which is part of the central nervous system, is the body’s unconscious control center. It consists of two interconnected branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which regulate homeostasis in regard to psychological and physiological states. Both work together to maintain balance within the body.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
When faced with urgent or stressful situations, our bodies are equipped to help us survive these ordeals. Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and activates the fight or flight response. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline surge in order to raise heart rate, breathing speed, and blood pressure levels – all invaluable resources needed for escape or confrontation.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic system is responsible for relaxation and recovery. This system is activated when we engage in activities like yoga, meditation or deep breathing. It helps with digestion, immune response and tissue repair.
What is Nervous System Regulation?
Nervous System Regulation is, at its core, the ability to move flexibly between different states of arousal in response to stressors.
This means that when we encounter a change in our environment, like a stressful situation, we can adapt so that we are not overwhelmed. It also means we completely recover after the stressor has been removed.
This ability to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances gives us a sense of agency; it makes us feel confident and secure because we can understand and navigate the world in the ways we choose. When our nervous system is regulated, being in our bodies fosters a sense of safety.
On the contrary, we could say that Nervous System Dysregulation is, in essence, overwhelm and translates into a sense of powerlessness. We feel we have no control over how we respond to triggers, and we remain stuck in that response even after the trigger is removed.
When our nervous system is chronically dysregulated, our bodies develop various symptoms and conditions. Being in our body may feel painful, uncomfortable, or even terrifying.
Trauma, burnout, illness, and chronic pain all stem from an overwhelmed nervous system.
The Four Pillars of Nervous System Regulation
The nervous system is the foundation of our lived experience, connecting our body and mind, regulating our emotional and mental state, immune system, and every other body system.
But there’s more.
The nervous system also connects us with the environment around us, allowing us to relate to other beings, and enabling our spirituality.
This interconnectedness means that when suffering arises – for example, anxiety, somatic illness, emotional pain, burnout, trauma, etc – we need to address all parts of being human if we want deep, long-lasting healing.
A regulated nervous system is built upon four Pillars:
- Body: all the biological components that influence regulation and health, from the genetic and cellular level to the organs and systems.
- Mind: thoughts, emotions, coping strategies, our internal working models, and how we see ourselves.
- Connection: how we relate to other humans, in the context of close relationships, within our community and our society at large.
- Spirituality: our need to be part of something larger than ourselves.
This is why we often get frustrated or blocked in our healing journey: when symptoms and suffering are approached with a “fixing” mentality, we desperately try to erase the symptom.
However, let’s take a step back and look at the whole person through the lens of the four pillars. We start seeing that symptom as a messenger of something deeper, and we can work on these different components of the human experience to achieve true, long-lasting healing.
Modern medicine is slow to change, but the paradigm is finally shifting towards addressing the whole person, not just the symptom or the condition.
This new approach is based on the work of giants of the field like George Engel with the biopsychosocial model and Urie Bronfenbrenner with the ecological systems theory.
Applying Nervous System Regulation to your Unique Circumstances
There’s no question that our genes play a role in determining how our nervous system regulates. But it’s also clear that the environment we live in has a profound impact on our nervous system development throughout life.
Genetics, for example, play a role in determining our degree of sensitivity.
As a result, if you have a high degree of sensitivity, you may need to put extra effort into regulating your nervous system in order to feel a sense of agency in your life.
However, environmental factors seem to play the biggest role in determining our ability to regulate our nervous system.
These factors may include your upbringing, societal background, relationships, and personal history.
All of these factors work together to “train” your nervous system throughout your lifetime and modify how it regulates through a process called neuroplasticity.
By exploring our history, we can develop a more compassionate understanding of ourselves and learn how to create a more regulated nervous system.
Trauma is often thought of as an event or set of events that happen to us, something done to us that is outside our control.
And while it’s true that trauma is often caused by overwhelming or violent events, such as abuse, neglect, or a natural disaster, it’s important to remember that trauma has less to do with what happens to us and more to do with how we respond to what happens to us.
How our nervous system processes and makes meaning of what happened to us determines whether or not we will develop trauma.
And while there is no one “right” way to process trauma, there are some common patterns that many people share.
One of the most important things we can do on our healing journey is to work on building a coherent narrative of our life so that we can make sense of our past and present experiences.
This can help us understand the current “picture”, and also what brought us where we are.
To do this, we need to be able to access our memories and feelings in a safe and supportive environment.
We also need tools and techniques to make sense of our experiences.
How to Start Regulating Your Nervous System
The journey towards a regulated nervous system needs to follow a certain sequence in order to be successful. The most common problem I see when people are working to heal themselves is they get stuck in a “fix” mentality.
They try one tool or tip they read on Instagram, or maybe they practice yoga and breathwork for a while. And they see improvements for a while, but then they get caught in a new cycle of dysregulation. They lose hope, and start thinking they are “broken” and will never heal, and withdraw.
Nervous System Regulation is a lifelong journey, but in order to see results and start being more regulated sooner rather than later, it’s important to have a strategy. People often don’t have the patience or motivation to stick through the ups and downs they experience, especially in the beginning of their journey.
To heal our nervous system, we need to follow a specific sequence:
- Awareness: it means being attuned to our bodily sensations and emotions.
- Regulation: it means learning how to respond to stressors in a healthy way.
- Reverse damage: it means undoing the negative effects of trauma or chronic stress.
- Expand capacity: it means increasing our ability to cope with stress.
- Connection: it means having supportive relationships with others and with the world around us.
These are the exact steps we use inside The Nervous System Solution.
Resources for Learning More about Nervous System Regulation
Nervous system regulation may seem daunting, but it’s a lifelong journey that can be made much easier with the right resources.
In this blog post, I’ve outlined the essential elements of nervous system regulation and provided some helpful resources to get you started.
If you’re ready to start down the road to healing, these tools will help set you on the path to success:
Nervous System Regulation – Best Resources to Get Started
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Dr. Linnea Passaler
Dr. Linnea Passaler has dedicated 20+ years to serving patients, first to a small number of individuals as a successful surgeon and then to thousands of people worldwide as the CEO of a digital health startup. After overcoming her own struggles with a dysregulated nervous system, she created Heal Your Nervous System (HYNS) to empower others in their healing journey. Her combination of neuroscience and somatic work helps those struggling with overwhelm, trauma, burnout, and anxiety to heal their dysregulated nervous systems and thrive.