How to Regulate Your Nervous System
Stress. Anxiety. Work burnout. Conflict. Trauma. What do these have in common? Your nervous system. More specifically, they can all take a toll on your nervous system. But why should you care about your nervous system? Because the functioning of your nervous system directly influences your mental wellbeing, physical health, and ability to manage life’s challenges every second of every day.
But first, let’s start with some basics.
What Exactly Is the Nervous System and How Does It Work?
We’ve all heard the terms nervous, anxious, or on edge. Likewise, we’ve all been startled when a window slams shut unexpectedly. Or felt our stomachs dropping and hearts racing as an airplane took off into turbulent air. These automatic physical experiences are directly managed by our nervous system.
So what, exactly, is the nervous system?
It’s the complex collection of wiring, nerves, and brain processes which manage a range of biological functions such as heart rate, digestion, motor functioning, and the interpretation of sensory information experienced in the world. Think of it like the command center and sensory network that controls your physical responses, pain, pleasure, and physical reactions to what the world throws your way.
Most importantly, the functioning of our nervous system is managed relatively automatically by the amygdala. Speaking from an evolutionary perspective, the amygdala is a central part of our brain that developed long before the prefrontal cortex (where our most advanced thinking, dreaming, and storytelling functions exist). Think of the amygdala as an interpreter for all of your sensory experiences in the world. When your brain receives external inputs such as noises, smells, sounds, sights, or sensations, the amygdala decides how to activate your nervous system and body in order to maintain homeostasis (a healthy baseline) or survival. Before you can think a single coherent thought, your amygdala has already activated to prepare the body for any and all situations.
It’s Not an Airplane, It’s a Cave Bear
So, let’s return to the example of a stressful airplane flight. Perhaps you understand logically that flying is statistically safer than driving a car. Yet you still feel nervous, on edge, or worried every time you fly. That’s because your amygdala is calling the shots. And it doesn’t operate using the logic of the prefrontal cortex, or thinking brain. Rather, the amygdala runs on programming from thousands upon thousands of years ago when this part of the human brain played a leading role in our species’ survival.
To put it bluntly, the amygdala was programmed to help us survive a world in which powerful and dangerous prehistoric species quite literally threatened us at every turn. Think cave bears, wooly mammoths, and lions. Thankfully, this function is precisely why our species survived a dangerous prehistoric world. But in a modern context, the amygdala can be fairly crude in its interpretation of what’s happening around us. So it may activate your fight, flight, or freeze response on a bumpy airplane ride in the same way it would have responded thousands of years ago to that cave bear.
So how do we negotiate with our amygdala and create improved responses to stress, anxiety, and the like? Nervous system regulation.
Skills for Nervous System Regulation
A quick disclaimer here: Your nervous system is powerful and quite helpful in keeping you safe from harm. There are plenty of modern scenarios in which you should listen to what your nervous system is telling you. If you’re crossing a dangerous street, engaging in risky behavior, picking up on red flags in a social situation, or happen to walk across the path of a grizzly bear – listen to your nervous system.
Before we dive into skills, let’s unpack the mechanics of your nervous system.
Our nervous system is made up of two core parts including the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It can be helpful to think of the sympathetic nervous system as the accelerator pedal, and the parasympathetic nervous system as the brakes.
- The sympathetic nervous system prepares our body for strenuous activity and activates our fight, flight, or freeze response to stressful situations (as in, that bumpy airplane flight).
- Our parasympathetic nervous system performs the opposite function; it activates to calm our body or slow us down. This is the rest and digest side of our nervous system.
The overall goal with nervous system regulation is to engage in skills that activate our parasympathetic nervous system in order to reduce the intensity and duration of a heightened nervous system response pattern. Over time and with persistence, we can train our brain and body to calm down from an activated state more quickly and with greater ease.
- Step 1: Bottom Up Regulation: In order to do this, we need to send signals from the body back up to the brain that our internal (i.e. body) and external environments are safe. Thinking your way out of anxiety or stress doesn’t work. Intellectualizing or talking about the experience won’t work. It starts with the body. The mind follows. We call this a “bottom up” approach.
- Step 2: Mindfulness Body Scan: Performing a mindfulness body scan involves closing the eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and “scanning” the body to increase awareness of tension and anxiety in the body. Is your heart racing or your chest tightening? Are your palms sweating? Fingers tingling? Take a few minutes sitting silently and “scanning” different parts of your body. Try to pinpoint and identify what’s happening or where you feel tension, nervousness, or pain.
- Step 3: The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique: The 4-7-8 breathing technique involves breathing in through your nose for a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7, and slowly exhaling through the mouth for a count of 8. Seat yourself in a comfortable and upright position. Close your eyes. Count yourself through the cycle until you feel more relaxed and in tune with your breath. When applied for as little as two minutes, this pattern has been shown to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest response. This will reduce your heart rate, distribute oxygen and blood flow throughout the body and brain, and create a sense of calm. Most importantly, this technique activates our vagus nerve (one of the largest and most important nerves in the brain/body controlling organ functions and the rest and digest state).
Be Kind to Yourself
If the above methods do not ease your anxiety, stress, or difficulty regulating, remember to be kind with yourself. Like any skill, nervous system regulation is a practice developed over time and with persistence. There are dozens of techniques for regulating your nervous system or calming anxiety if this one feels unhelpful.