How to Regulate My Nervous System: 17 Favorite Tools

How to Regulate My Nervous System: 17 Favorite Tools

How to Regulate My Nervous System: Your nervous system is a marvel of complexity, controlling everything from your heart rate to your emotional responses. To truly understand it, let’s break it down into parts, explore the parasympathetic nervous system, delve into the polyvagal theory, and uncover signs of a dysregulated nervous system.

We’ll then discuss the causes of such dysregulation, and finally, explore some of the favorite ways to bring your nervous system back into balance.

Parts of Your Nervous System

To appreciate the intricate workings of your nervous system, it’s essential to understand its components:

1. Central Nervous System (CNS): This includes your brain and spinal cord, serving as the control center for your entire body.

2. Peripheral Nervous System (PNS): The PNS extends throughout your body, connecting the CNS to the rest of your system. It consists of two primary divisions: the somatic and autonomic nervous systems.

3. Autonomic Nervous System (ANS): This is where things get interesting, as the ANS controls involuntary bodily functions, such as heartbeat, digestion, and breathing.

This article on New-Medical.net has one of the simplest but detailed graphics I’ve seen of the nervous system, including which organs are a part of the sympathetic and parasympathetic respectively.

Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system is a vital component of the ANS. It’s responsible for calming your body down after the “fight or flight” response is activated. This system helps you rest and digest, promoting recovery and relaxation.

The parasympathetic nervous system plays a crucial role in regulating your overall nervous system. It is often referred to as the “rest and digest” system, and its primary function is to promote relaxation, recovery, and the restoration of bodily functions after periods of stress or arousal. Here’s how the parasympathetic nervous system relates to the regulation of your nervous system:

Counterbalance to the Sympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system operates in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response during times of stress or danger. While the sympathetic system prepares the body for action, the parasympathetic system acts as a counterbalance to calm the body down when the threat has passed. This balance is essential for overall nervous system regulation.

Maintaining Homeostasis

The parasympathetic nervous system helps to maintain homeostasis, which is the body’s state of equilibrium. It does this by promoting activities such as slowing the heart rate, stimulating digestion, and reducing muscle tension. These activities counteract the physiological changes induced by the sympathetic system during stress.

Stress Response Deactivation

One of the parasympathetic system’s key roles is to deactivate the body’s stress response initiated by the sympathetic system. It reduces the release of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, and helps return the body to a calmer state.

Enhanced Recovery

Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is essential for recovery. It allows the body to recuperate, repair tissues, and restore energy reserves. This is why restorative activities like sleep, relaxation, and even deep breathing are associated with parasympathetic dominance.

Emotional Regulation

The parasympathetic system is also involved in emotional regulation. When it’s functioning properly, it can help manage and alleviate feelings of anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions.

Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, is a groundbreaking concept in the field of psychology and neuroscience that seeks to explain how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) influences our social behavior, emotional regulation, and responses to stress. The theory is named for the “polyvagal” or “many-vagal” nature of the vagus nerve, a major component of the ANS. The theory proposes that the vagus nerve has three evolutionary stages, each with specific functions related to how we respond to and interact with our environment.

The Polyvagal Theory asserts that our nervous system doesn’t operate as a simple on-off switch between the SNS and the parasympathetic system, but rather, it’s a dynamic system that continually assesses the environment for safety and adapts accordingly. When we perceive safety, the VVC predominates, promoting social engagement. When we perceive danger, the SNS or DVC may activate to respond to the threat.

The theory also emphasizes the importance of the vagus nerve in regulating bodily functions and how it influences our emotions and behaviors.

Signs of a Dysregulated Nervous System

Signs of nervous system dysregulation can manifest in various ways, including:

  • Chronic Anxiety: An overactive sympathetic response can lead to constant anxiety and hypervigilance.
  • Depression: An underactive parasympathetic response might contribute to feelings of depression and helplessness.
  • Digestive Issues: Nervous system dysregulation can affect digestion, leading to problems like irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Insomnia: Difficulty falling and staying asleep can result from an imbalanced nervous system.

Read more about how to use your nervous system to deal with stress as an entrepreneur.

Nervous System Regulation

To maintain a healthy balance in your nervous system, it’s crucial to understand how to regulate it effectively.

Several factors can contribute to a dysregulated nervous system, which can cause trauma responses if they aren’t addressed.

Causes of nervous system dysregulation

  • Childhood Trauma: Early traumatic experiences can impact the development of your nervous system, making it more prone to dysregulation.
  • Stressful Events: Ongoing stress, chronic stress, or sudden traumatic events can trigger an overactive sympathetic response. While experiencing stressful situations is normal, chronic stress without relief can lead to trauma.
  • Negative Thoughts: Persistent negative thinking can perpetuate nervous system dysregulation if it becomes chronic stress, or leads to more serious mental health problems. Read about trauma effects on mindset.
  • Window of tolerance: If you go outside what is comfortable and safe for you, too quickly, you can go outside what is called your window of tolerance. Your “window of tolerance” is the range of emotional and physiological states in which you can effectively cope with stress and engage with the world without becoming overwhelmed or emotionally dysregulated.

17 Favorite Ways to Regulate Your Nervous System

#1: Vagus Nerve Toning

Like I mentioned above, polyvagal theory explains that the vagus nerve might be a big part of nervous system regulation. The good news is that we can actually TONE the vagus nerve in some really simple ways. Gargling water, singing, chanting, humming, and even laughter can all tone your vagus nerve!

As I lean more into regulating my nervous system and strengthening its flexibility, rediscovering my love for writing and singing music = really powerful.

#2: Cold Showers

Cold exposure (exposure to cold water) can help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and improved stress resilience. You can do this in the shower, or bath.

You can also fill a bowl with ice water and submerge just your face. Even doing this for a couple of minutes once a week is amazing. I personally found cold showers absolutely unbearable when I started, and now I often enjoy them. (It’s also better for my eczema tbh.)

#3: Box Breathing

This simple breathing exercise, which involves inhaling, holding, exhaling, and holding your breath in equal intervals, can help calm your nervous system.

Box breathing is one of my favorite ways to calm down in moments of stress. I’ll do box breathing before leading meditations, in the car, in the grocery store line, in an Uber. It requires very little mental or physical space and commitment. You bring your lungs everywhere, and you need to breathe anyway!

#4: Digestive System

Pay attention to what you eat and how your body responds. Coffee, salt and sugar all mess with stress, so if you struggle with chronic stress and anxiety, you might take more time to sit with how you feel when you consume certain things. This isn’t about dieting, just paying more attention. A healthy gut improves your overall physical health, and there is a lot you can do for gut health.

#5: Sleep Quality

Prioritize good sleep hygiene to ensure you get sufficient rest and recovery, which is crucial for nervous system regulation.

#6: Deep Breathing

Practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce stress. I love breathwork in general (especially the more intense breathwork, which is not relaxing or easy for beginners). Here’s one of my favorite breathwork creators with a session focused on slow, deep breaths,

#7: Mindfulness Meditation

Engage in mindfulness or meditation to increase awareness and control of your thoughts and emotions. You can find thousands of videos on YouTube for mindfulness meditations. Or, you can guide yourself by closing your eyes and scanning your body from head to toe.

I made a mindfulness meditation you can try while DRIVING! Check it out here.

#8: Practice Yoga

Yoga combines physical postures with deep breathing and relaxation techniques, making it an effective way to regulate your nervous system. Yoga also involves a lot of mindfulness around the breath, which is also helpful for relaxing like I mentioned above.

#9: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Tense and relax various muscle groups to reduce physical tension and promote relaxation.

#10: Guided Imagery

Use visualization techniques to create a mental calm space or journey that can help reduce stress and anxiety.

#11: Biofeedback

Learn to control physiological responses like heart rate and muscle tension with biofeedback devices or professional guidance.

#12: Tai Chi or intuitive movement

This mind-body practice combines gentle movements and deep breathing to promote relaxation and reduce stress. Alternatively, you can practice intuitive and intentional movement and get similar effects. Choose music that inspires you, and practice moving your body, slowly, quickly, or any which way that feels good. Practice really leaning into HOW it FEELS as your body moves.

#13: Limit Caffeine and Sugar

Reducing your intake of caffeine and refined sugar can help stabilize energy levels and mood.

#14: Social Connection

Spend time with loved ones, as social engagement can positively affect your nervous system. Social connection regulates the nervous system because positive social interactions and bonds trigger the activation of the ventral vagal complex, a branch of the vagus nerve, which promotes relaxation, emotional regulation, and a sense of safety, reducing the dominance of stress responses in the body.

#15: Time in Nature

Exposure to natural environments has been shown to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Every week, I explore somewhere new in nature near my house, and collect or arrange found objects in creative patterns. If I don’t collect or create, I often take pictures or just sit and enjoy the area. This has been a powerful tool for me for managing stress.

#16: Limit Screen Time

Lots of studies show the potential negative impacts social media has on our mental health.

An easy way to help with this is simply reducing screen time. Reducing the time spent on electronic devices, especially before bedtime, can improve sleep quality and support nervous system regulation.

#17: Limit Alcohol and Smoking

Reducing or eliminating alcohol and tobacco can have a positive impact on your nervous system, as these substances can be stimulants or depressants.

Remember that everyone is unique, and what works best for one person may not work as effectively for another. It’s essential to experiment with different strategies and identify the techniques that work best for you in regulating your nervous system. Additionally, consider consulting a healthcare professional or therapist for personalized guidance and support in managing and regulating your nervous system.

Conclusion

Your nervous system plays a critical role in maintaining your overall health and well-being. By understanding its components, the parasympathetic nervous system, polyvagal theory, and the signs of dysregulation, you can take steps to keep it in balance. That’s how to regulate my nervous system.

Identifying the causes of dysregulation and implementing your favorite methods for regulation can lead to a happier, healthier you.

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