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How To Self Regulate Your Nervous System

5 Mins read

If you’ve been researching how to self regulate your nervous system, that means you likely feel anxious, dysregulated, or on high alert quite often. It’s incredibly frustrating when your body and mind seem to be acting as though an intruder is at your door, and you’re in a state of complete dysregulation, over a minor life stressor. In other words, you tend to overreact (both physically and mentally) to stressful situations that don’t warrant an emergency response. If this happens to you, you’re not alone, and there are tips in this article that will help you.

Your nervous system is the control centre of your body. It’s composed of your brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Learning how to self regulate your nervous system means you’re learning how to self-soothe, calm yourself down, and better respond to stress. In fact, learning how to self regulate your nervous system will change the way your body feels, the way your brain thinks, and the way you behave.

When you learn how to self regulate, you’re mastering how to manage your emotions and your physical response to stressors. To master this is truly a life-changing feat.

Kevin Choi, the CEO of the mental health facility Harm Reduction Center states: “Self-regulating your nervous system means having the ability to relax and calm yourself even when you’re feeling anxious, frightened, nervous, stressed, or upset. It’s a skill everyone can learn and practice.”

Why Do We Feel Dysregulated?

Dr. Ben E. Paxton explains, “Our nervous system is responsible for our fight/flight response (sympathetic system) which is activated during emergency circumstances and stressful situations, as well as the parasympathetic system that returns the body to a normal state and calms it down. The two should always be in harmony. However, when the balance is disrupted due to past trauma, chronic stress, lack of social support, unfavourable living conditions, or from an unresolved life stressor, our body can trigger too much fight or flight, not enough rest to balance it out, then a dysregulated nervous system occurs.”

Dysregulation almost always feels very uncomfortable. You might feel short of breath, on high alert, feel very anxious, and experience heart palpitations among other physical symptoms. You shouldn’t feel this way over a minor stressor such as a looming deadline or a first date. If you do feel this dysregulated when day-to-day stressors occur, you’ll definitely want to try to learn how to self regulate your nervous system.

How To Self Regulate Your Nervous System

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It’s important to note that while there are many tips out there for regulating your nervous system, grounding yourself, and calming yourself down, what works is truly unique for everyone.

The best advice we can give you is to experiment with many of the below tips for soothing yourself and regulating your nervous system, as well as trying some of your own ideas, and keep a journal to take note of what works for you.

You can even mindfully take notice of moments when you feel regulated and calm, and write down what you were doing in that moment. Were you watching the sunset at the beach, and listening to the ocean waves? Did you feel regulated and relaxed? If so, write that down so that you remember this activity as a potential way for how to self regulate your nervous system. 

Below are some tips about how to self regulate the nervous system that might work exceptionally well for you. If you have anxiety, you’re often on edge, or consistently feeling dysregulated, try some of these below tips:

Exercise to Rid Your Body of Nervous Energy

If you’re feeling anxious and you sit still, nervous energy could circulate in your body and cause you to feel dysregulated. That’s why Kevin Choi states: “A great example of how to self regulate your nervous system is to exercise. For example, if you are feeling anxious about something, go out and exercise. This can allow your body to use up excess energy that would otherwise manifest as anxiety.” 

Try Strategic Breathing Exercises

When you’re feeling very stressed or dysregulated, do not underestimate the power of deep breathing exercises to self-regulate. Dr. Jordan Duncan explains, “Focused breathing is an excellent way for someone to self regulate their nervous system. Breathing has been described as the link between motion and emotion and can be very important when self-regulating anxiety, stress, mood, etc. This is accomplished through diaphragmatic breathing.

Here you would breathe in and out through your nose and allow the front, back, and sides of your abdomen to distend as you inhale. There are numerous different focused breathing routines, for example: Breathe slowly and count to 4 or 5 on both the inhale and exhale. Or, try the technique of breathing in for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, breathing out for 6 seconds, and holding for 2 seconds. Imagine you are moving the breath between the top of your head and the bottom of your spine on the inhale and exhale.”

You can perform these breathing techniques for several minutes if you need to, and you will likely find you feel much more relaxed and much less dysregulated after. These breathing techniques work even better if you go out onto your balcony or go outside and breathe in some fresh air.

Use Music or Singing

Some people find that singing out loud to their favourite songs helps regulate their nervous system. I myself find that when I’m anxious or feeling dysregulated, using YouTube karaoke to sing out loud, or singing along to my favourite playlist for a while, truly does help me feel more calm and regulated. Think of it as releasing your nervous energy by singing as loud as you can. You can even dance as well since exercise is another way to expend that nervous energy.

Immerse Yourself in Nature

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Certain people find nature to be incredibly calming. The senses seem to calm when around nature for many people. It’s the sound of nature, the fresh air, the scenery, and the colours. That’s why if you’re experimenting with how to self regulate your nervous system, you should try going on a long, scenic walk. Or, simply sit by a waterfall or lake and enjoy your naturally beautiful surroundings. See if it regulates you, and if it does, write it down in your journal as a self-regulating technique that works.

Use Ice or Cold Water

Self-regulation in a pinch can sometimes be solved with ice or cold water. Some people splash cold water on their face or have a cold shower, and others simply hold ice cubes. Rebecca Marcus, a trauma-informed psychotherapist and mindfulness expert based in New York City explains, “Try placing an ice pack wrapped in a towel over your eyes and holding your breath for thirty seconds. This stimulates the diver’s response and lowers your heart rate inducing the relaxation response.”

Hug Yourself

Yes, the pressure and feeling of hugging yourself can help you regulate your nervous system. Megan Ayala, fitness and health expert at Patricia and Carolyn explains: “Havening refers to hugging yourself, there are nerve endings right on the surface of your skin cells on the upper body. Applying mild pressure to them can ease up your nervous system. Place both hands on opposite shoulders and apply pressure on your shoulders gently.”

Try Grounding Techniques

There are a plethora of grounding techniques that help some people self-regulate. The Erickson Grounding Technique, for example, involves talking out loud about what your senses are experiencing. Find 5 things you see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s an example of a grounding technique that many therapists recommend.

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