Nervous system dysregulation can wreak havoc on your mind and body.
Nervous system dysregulation happens when your stress response is either hyperactive or exhausted, and your body has a hard time coming back to its calm and steady baseline as a result.
When nervous system dysregulation is at play you feel out of control, like you can’t respond to situations appropriately or show up to life the way you want to.
Luckily, there are many strategies you can use to heal nervous system dysregulation, so you can feel like yourself again and start enjoying the changing tides of your life more fully.
Nervous System 101: How the Autonomic Nervous System Works
The autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) controls your body’s stress response.
It is activated when you are in danger, stressed, or exercising, and it changes your physiology to prioritize the functions your body needs to keep you out of danger when you are under physical threat (1).
When the SNS is active, your heart rate goes up, your breath becomes quicker and more shallow, blood and oxygen are shuttled away from your digestive organs and into your muscles (so you can fight or run away from an attack if needed, for example.)
The SNS is designed to be active only for short bouts of time, and when the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system is supposed to take over again, restoring regular bodily function. Unfortunately, stress is chronic for many people, which leads to nervous system dysregulation as we’ll see in a moment.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for your body’s rest-and-digest mode.
The PNS is the counterbalance to the SNS. The main purpose of the PNS is to maintain the body’s homeostasis (functional balance,) conserve energy, and regulate essential bodily functions like digestion and urination(2).
When the PNS is active, heart rate is slow and steady, breath is deep, and blood is concentrated in the digestive organs to ensure proper nutrient absorption and detoxification.
The vagus nerve is the most important nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system.
It runs from the brain down the throat, through the hearts and lungs, and down into your GI tract and composes a whopping 73% of all PNS fibers.
Aside from it’s broad scope of influence through the body, another fascinating fact about the vagus nerve is that 80% of its fibers are afferent, meaning they run from the body to the brain (3).
How the Nervous System Gets Dysregulated
Ideally, the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant most of the time, and the sympathetic nervous system only takes over for short bouts of time as needed. But if you experience excessive or prolonged periods of stress, the balance between PNS and SNS can go awry.
There are different origins of stress that can cause nervous system dysregulation.
Here are some of the most common causes:
When you experience an extremely stressful event that you can’t escape and don’t have the opportunity to process afterwards, that stress gets stored in your nervous system as a pattern. From then on, whenever you encounter a situation that reminds you of that past event, you respond to the present moment as if you were still encountering that extreme threat from the past.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
ACEs include events like growing up with an alcoholic caregiver, experiencing violence in the home, and other aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding, such as food instability, discrimination, or instability due to divorce (4).
Studies have shown that the more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely they are to experience mental and physical health issues in adulthood.
Any experience that is repeated or feels overwhelming can get stored in the nervous system as a pattern. This is because the nervous system is trying to protect you from harm, so it “remembers” adverse experiences from the past to try to steer you toward safer experiences in the future.
The problem is, when these experiences get stored as patterns, you have a hard time responding to the present moment appropriately.
Gut bacteria also impact the neurotransmitter and hormone flow in your body, the immune system, and your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and detoxify. So when the balance of bacteria is off in your gut it ends up causing stress in your system that can affect the health of both your mind and body.
Related: 9 Ways to Improve Gut Health
Over-stimulation can overload your nervous system, making it challenging to process any more inputs and respond to circumstances appropriately.
Things like too much caffeine, alcohol, or sugar consumption, excessive or constant noise, and too much screen-time are all common culprits that can lead to over-stimulation.
Our bodies thrive on routine, and nowhere is this more true than when it comes to sleep. If your sleep is erratic, meaning you go to bed and wake up at irregular times, or if you go to bed and/or sleep too late, your circadian rhythm gets stressed and your capacity to handle life’s challenges is diminished.
Signs of Nervous System Dysregulation
Nervous system dysregulation means that there is an imbalance between the SNS and PNS. The SNS might be either hyperactive (early stage) or exhausted (chronic, later stage), and this constant overstimulation is hijacking the PNS’s ability to do its job.
Here are some signs that your nervous system is dysregulated:
- You feel like you often or always overreact
- You are easily overwhelmed
- You have difficulty relaxing
- You engage in risky behavior to help you feel alive
- You are hypervigilant and/or perfectionist
- You lack boundaries, you’re a people-pleaser and have trouble saying “no”
- Your digestion is off: You either poop too much and have loose stools or you don’t poop daily. You may also experience gas, bloating, acid reflux, or discomfort in your abdomen.
- You don’t sleep well: You may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting the deep sleep you need in order to thrive.
- Your muscles are tense, you may have TMJ
- You frequently experience headaches or migraines
- Your brain feels foggy
- You have trouble concentrating
- You regularly experience anxiety, depression, restlessness or irritability
- You feel like you can’t take a deep breath into your belly and lungs
- You have trouble waking up in the morning
- You have low energy
- You feel burnt out, lack motivation, and have trouble finding your spark
Because the influence of the nervous system is so widespread, this is certainly not an exhaustive list, nor will everyone with nervous system dysregulation experience all of these symptoms.
But if any of the symptoms on this list are showing up for you, then it would be a good idea to prioritize nervous system healing.
Stages of Healing a Dysregulated Nervous System
If you’d like heal your nervous system, there are 5 stages you’re likely to go through. These don’t necessarily happen in order, but there’s a general progression that most people notice.
1. Awareness of problem.
In the first stage of healing a dysregulated nervous system, you recognize that you are often overwhelmed by emotion and feel out of control. You may nod yes to multiple items on the signs and symptoms list above, but you don’t know what to do about any of it…yet.
2. Awareness of cause.
The second stage of nervous system healing is that you start to notice when you’ve been operating in survival mode, and you are becoming aware of the thoughts and behaviors that are associated with your distress, but only after the emotional storm has passed.
3. Awareness of physical stress response.
The third stage of nervous system healing is when you begin to notice when your stress response is active, but you still respond on autopilot and have a hard time controlling your reactions.
4. Awareness of triggers.
You’ve reached the fourth stage of healing when you recognize your triggers and consciously witness the stress response in your body quickly enough to remove yourself from the situation and give yourself the time and space you need to calm your nervous system down again.
5. Ability to regulate.
And the fifth stage of healing dysregulation is when you are able to stay present even as you feel your stress response being activated and circumstances around you aren’t ideal.
Why are these stages important?
The reason I’m including these stages in this article is because a lot of the time people are under the impression that healing is linear. It’s not, especially when it comes to nervous system health.
You will think that you’ve healed one aspect only to find it reactivated in a whole new way down the line. The important thing is to keep practicing, keep prioritizing your healing, and keep being gentle with yourself as new layers are revealed.
This work is your life’s work.
It allows you to show up for life the way you want to and live more fully.
Every step you take on this journey doesn’t just benefit you, it benefits those around you and all living beings everywhere, because we are much more interconnected than we tend to realize.
So the next obvious question is, what can you do to start healing nervous system dysregulation?
Strategies for Healing Nervous System Dysregulation
There are many strategies you can use to heal the nervous system, and different strategies work for different people at different times in their lives.
When I work with clients 1-on-1 and in my programs, we use informed experimentation to systematically figure out the strategies that will have the greatest impact on the individual based on where they are on their own healing journey.
Some of these strategies, like mindful movement and bodywork help you feel safe in your body so you can start to let your guard down and live life more fully.
Practices like breath-work, walking in nature, and sweat-inducing exercise naturally help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and restore homeostasis so you feel more calm and grounded.
Eating a gut-healthy diet, sticking to a routine, and using herbal support can help to reduce stress in the physical body by ensuring your basic needs are met and make life a lot more manageable.
And emotional expression as well as singing, chanting, drumming, and dancing, allow stuck energy to move so the mind-body’s natural healing capacity is enabled.
Mindful movement includes practices like yoga and qigong that help you bring greater awareness to —and tolerance for— what’s happening in your body.
This is crucial, because a lot of the time when the nervous system is dysregulated, the stress, tension, and memories that are stored in the body feel so unbearable, uncomfortable, and scary, that we’d rather ignore what we’re feeling in the body. But in order to be healed, these sensations must be felt.
Mindful movement practices, when taught by a trauma-informed practitioner, can help you slowly and safely bring conscious awareness back into your body so energy can move more freely and healing can start to happen.
Related: How Yoga Can Improve Mental Health
Bodywork, like mindful movement, can help you release tension that is stored in your body and help you feel safe again.
There are many breath-work practices, but two that can impact the nervous system most profoundly include deep, slow, breathing, and the Wim Hof method of breath retention.
Deep, slow breathing activates the PNS via the vagus nerve, because when your brain registers that you’re able to slow and deepen your breath, it believes that you are safe enough to relax.
The Wim Hof method guides you to oxygenate your system and then retain an exhale for longer than you normally would. The idea is not to push your body past its limits, but to realize how much power your mind has over your body and general sense of well-being. This allows you to build resiliency by exposing you to stress within a safe context, similar to exercise.
Walking in Nature
Numerous studies have shown the benefits that communing with nature can have on calming stress and improving both mental and physical health.
While the study of the microbiome is still in its infancy, evidence supporting the impact of gut health on the mind and body is staggering. (6)
The bacteria in your gut don’t just help with nutrient absorption and synthesis, they also enable the function of your enteric nervous system (the nerves in your GI tract) which then sends signals to your brain via the vagus nerve. When the balance of gut bacteria is off, your body can’t function well and stress is increased. (7)
Exercise, especially aerobic and endurance exercises, activate the sympathetic nervous system to bring your heart rate up, oxygenate your muscles, and help you stay cool by breaking a sweat. When you’re done exercising, your parasympathetic nervous system takes over again, bringing your body back to homeostasis. (8)
It’s possible that this engage-and-release mechanism conditions your nervous system, so while you’re strengthening your muscles, you’re also strengthening your nervous system’s ability to respond to circumstances appropriately.
The physical body thrives on routine, and deviation from routine causes stress. (9)
Having a predictable schedule allows your body the time and space it needs to do all of the things it needs to do in order to function well. (10)
This is especially true for sleep and digestion, so if you want to support your nervous system, one of the best places to start is by sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, getting outside before 9 a.m. (the blue light in the morning stimulates hormone flow to support your circadian rhythm,), and eat at regular mealtimes.
Herbal medicine has been used to support nervous system regulation and healing for thousands of years, long before humans even knew the nervous system existed.
While a customized herbal formula prescribed by a trained herbalist will have the most targeted effect, you can educate yourself at home to find single herbs that can also offer you support.
Emotions are energy in motion that wants to move out of the body.
When we fight against the truth our emotions, either through denial/suppression or by trying to “fix” them externally, we only make the pressure inside of us stronger.
The challenge is that we often don’t feel safe enough to express (from Latin, “to press out”,) our emotions, so they continue to dominate our thoughts, behaviors, and lives subconsciously, like puppeteers behind a stage.
The first step, then, is to establish safety in experiencing emotional sensations within the body. The next step is to allow the energy of those emotions to move through and out.
Sometimes verbalization helps, as in talk therapy, but because the emotional part of the brain is entirely separate from the analytical side, emotional expression is usually more effective when it comes through the body.
Practices like yoga, qigong, EMDR, and journaling can start this process, but because we are social creatures, it’s usually more helpful to work with a trained practitioner who can hold space for your process.
Singing, Chanting, Drumming, and Dancing especially when in community
There haven’t been enough studies to figure out why these strategies work, but it is undeniable that they do work to heal the nervous system. There is a deep, biological need for us to connect with others in a tribe, to move as part of a bigger whole rather than as individuals, like a school of fish or flock of birds.
From a traditional medicine standpoint, singing, chanting, drumming, and dancing help to unblock stuck energy within the mind-body system so health can be restored.
Overwhelmed? Then start here.
When your nervous system is dysregulated, any extra thing to do can seem like too much. But if you don’t take steps to heal, you’ll keep feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
If you’re ready to start healing, then you need to find support.
My online programs and 1-on-1 sessions are designed to help you find the strategies and make the changes that will have the greatest impact on your mind, body, and spirit, so you can start showing up for life the way you want to.
And if you’d like to get more holistic mental health and wellness insights, strategy, and inspiration in your inbox, then click here to sign up for my weekly newsletter.
I can’t wait to see where this takes you!