How Mental Health is Linked to the Nervous System:
Our nervous systems are always on alert, scanning our environment for potential threats. This is an adaptive necessary function, protecting us from harm in stressful situations using the flight, flight, or freeze response. However, sometimes our nervous systems can be over-sensitive and get stuck in protection mode, causing us to react strongly to seemingly innocuous stimuli. This can be highly frustrating, increase mental health symptoms, and can significantly impair our quality of life.
If a person is unable to regulate their fear responses, their nervous system is in a constant state of alarm. People with chronic stress, anxiety disorders, or trauma have a much harder time “turning off” their nervous system and struggle with feeling safe in their bodies and the world.
A dysregulated nervous system can cause mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, poor attention, and poor memory. This process can also lead to behaviors that are unhelpful to living a healthy, balanced life, and cause difficulty in relationships, whether with colleagues, partners, friends, or family.
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Chronic nervous system dysregulation affects our entire system on a cellular level which in time, wears out our organs and can lead to premature death. Our central nervous system influences the activity of most tissues and organ systems in the body.
Physical signs are bodies are dysregulated/have been dysregulated for a long time
- Early signs: headaches, muscle tension, and stomach upset, weak immune system
- Later effects: Inflammation, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, cognitive deterioration such as dementia
Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous receives and interprets information about the body and external environment to identify cues for feelings of safety or cues that there is a threat. The autonomic nervous system has two main divisions.
Sympathetic Nervous System:
The sympathetic nervous system directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations through a fight-flight or freeze response. This is the system that helps us mobilize or take action when we experience cues of danger. A flash flood of stress hormones boosts the body’s alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. Breathing quickens, delivering fresh oxygen to the brain, and an infusion of glucose is shot into the bloodstream for a quick energy boost. This response occurs so quickly that people often don’t realize it’s taken place, such as getting out of the way of an oncoming car.
Parasympathetic Nervous System:
The parasympathetic nervous system controls the body’s ability to relax. It’s sometimes called the “rest and digest” state. It helps maintain daily functions like your resting heart rate, which is your heart rate while your body is at rest; your metabolism; and your resting bronchial constriction, which affects your breathing rate. It essentially keeps you in a relaxed state.
Recognizing Nervous System Dysregulation
A normally regulated nervous system experiences stress but returns to normal when the threat or anxiety has passed. This period during which you have the ability to engage in self-regulation is called the window of tolerance, and most people move through several of these cycles daily.
The window of tolerance is the optimal zone of “arousal” for a person to function in everyday life. When a person is operating within this zone or window, they can effectively manage and cope with or control their emotions and stress, and they have more room to let stressful things happen or come in.
Stress and anxiety can get us outside of our window of tolerance – our window starts to close and we notice we cannot take in more stress. When this happens, we become either hyperaroused: anxious, angry, and overwhelmed. Alternately, we can become hypoaroused: numb, frozen, and withdrawn.
When your window of tolerance is small when you are not in the presence of an actual threat, but your body thinks you are, this could mean you are experiencing nervous system dysregulation. If your body is in a fight or flight response, you are probably feeling emotions like panic, fear, irritation, or anger. You may notice bodily sensations heart pounding and your pupils dilating. Hypervigilance increases and sleep quality can be poor. If you enter a frozen state, this is where you might experience immobilization, hopelessness, and brain fog.
Notice Your Triggers
In order to regulate your nervous system, you first need to recognize your triggers for both real and perceived danger. If possible, try to avoid your triggers. This can be difficult, as some triggers may be impossible to avoid entirely, for example, noisy neighbors or disgruntled co-workers. However, even making an effort to reduce your exposure to triggers can help lessen the fear response and the severity of your nervous system dysregulation.
If you are unable to control exposure to your triggers, the best way to deal with a dysregulated nervous system is to identify your triggers and engage in self-care that soothes the distress of being on high alert so that your body feels a sense of safety.
What contributes to how our nervous system responds: Genetics and life experiences that have had negative effects.
Triggers tell our bodies “I am not safe”
- Environmental danger: natural disasters, housing scarcity, oppression, loud noises, crowds, distress from what is going on in the world
- Relational danger: violence, isolation, gaslighting, broken trust, crowds
- Internal Danger: negative self-talk, shame narratives, feelings of defectiveness or worthlessness
Regulate your nervous system
Activate Your Vagus Verve:
By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your brain and body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, well-being, and resilience. The vagus nerve system acts to counterbalance the fight or flight system and can trigger a relaxation response in our body. There are many practical tools you can use to engage your vagus nerve
- Vibrations: Humming, singing, chanting, laughing
- Movement: Dancing, shaking it out, rocking, yoga, regular exercise
- Senses: Get cold, eat something bitter
- Supplements: Omega-3s and probiotics
- The Basic Exercise
- Interweave fingers on both hands and place them behind the head
- Without turning your head, look to the right
- Remain here until you spontaneously yawn or swallow
- Return to the neutral state with head and eyes straight
- Repeat on the other side
Choose People and relationships that are physically and emotionally safe
Connecting with others is vital to our survival. Choosing friends, partners, and chosen family that are aware of, and, try to avoid activating our triggers, is a very healing way to reverse nervous system dysregulation associated with relational trauma. Engaging in healthy relationships after relational trauma can rewire the brain so it no longer views connecting with others as dangerous.
- 5 things you see
- 4 things you hear
- 3 things you smell
- 2 things you touch
- 1 thing you taste
Cold water: Wash your face in ice water, put cold water on your wrists play in the snow, etc. This activates our dive response which slows the heartbeat and breathing
Stretching: When we release pressure and muscle tension, our body receives the signal to calm down.
Hugs to someone you care about: This lets your body know it is safe and connected
Bilateral Stimulation with the Butterfly hug: Bilateral stimulation has been used for a very long time in different ways because it is found to create and be soothing to the brain and body. Different methods of bilateral stimulation are part of EMDR.
To do the butterfly hug, put your right hand on your left shoulder and your left hand on your right shoulder. Then, you alternate gently tapping each shoulder in a consistent rhythm or pattern.
Don’t multitask: Focusing on too much at once keeps us in a stressful state. Concentrating on one thing at a time with focus and avoiding the temptation to multitask can maximize the benefits of a regulated nervous system.
Sex: Sex lets you move through healthy nervous system engagement and then relaxation. It also produces the feel-good hormones of dopamine, oxytocin, and norepinephrine. Even the feeling that someone is attracted to us activates these feel-good chemicals.
Deep Breathing Techniques to Relax Your Nerves
- Diaphragmatic: Also known as deep belly breathing. You can force diaphragmatic breathing by holding your arms at shoulder height or while touching your head. Oxygen consumption and air intake is superior compared to another arm poisoning.
- Begin by slowly exhaling all of your air out
- Then, gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4
- Hold at the top of your breath for a count of 4
- Then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4
- At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for the count of 4
- Two breaths: Take a big breath, and before exhaling, take a second breath
With all of these, pay attention to your chest rising and falling as you breathe to enhance your level of relaxation
By the year 2050, it is projected that ⅔ of humans will live in urban areas. Nature walks are better for the mind than urban immersion. There is less to stimulate the nervous system in nature vs. urban or stressful environments.
Walks in green spaces, especially forests, compared with urban walks, show a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate.
You can get the benefits of nature by either engaging in it by doing activities like gardening or bird watching. If you cannot get outside, looking out the window still helps. Recently, employers are starting to realize that employees are happier and more productive if they can see nature out the window. Hospital patients who have windows often do better than patients w/o windows.
Recognize Your Glimmers
Knowing your glimmers is knowing what nourishes your nervous system and helps you feel calm and relaxed and brings a smile to your face. You can also intentionally bring in glimmers into your day to help take you out of defense and into safety. Maybe this is a heated blanket, a favorite song or talking to a loved one.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you are having problems identifying your triggers or if you are still having trouble with your nervous system regulation, a trauma-informed therapist can help improve your nervous system health and increase your sense of safety and your sense of well-being. Especially if you happen to have past traumas.
If you have a history of traumatic experiences, specialized therapies like EMDR can help and effectivity process past trauma, control your responses to stress, and of creating feelings of hope. Cell damage from an overactive nervous system will be lessened and life expectancy is increased once we have the tools and support we need.