Learning How to Regulate the Nervous System

Learning how to regulate our nervous system and why it becomes dysregulated in the first place

Periods of stress and trauma activate the nervous system, kicking it into high gear to fight off whatever feels threatening to it. Normally, when your nervous system experiences stress, it returns to normal once the threat has passed. This period, when you’re able to self-regulate, is your window of tolerance, or capacity to handle stressful emotions and situations. Certain events or situations can push you closer and closer to the edge of your window. Ideally, you would be able to access internal and external resources to keep you regulated within your range, but if you experienced trauma or didn’t receive the support you needed as a child, you might experience intense highs and lows that feel out of your control. Bringing your nervous system back into balance can allow you to see the stressful situation from a more receptive point of view, helping you to effectively overcome them.

Experiencing nervous system fluctuations on a daily basis is normal. You can probably take note of moments in your day that you’ve witnessed your nervous system shift into a momentary state of hyperarousal, but safely come back to baseline not long after. Maybe this is in the form of an unexpected and jarring phone call or having to suddenly hit the brakes on your morning commute. Your nervous system is activated, but can quickly recalibrate. In times of high stress or trauma though, that heightened energy might not come back down and becomes stuck in the body. On one end, feelings of anxiety, panic, and restlessness can come from this state of hyperarousal, where your body is in fight or flight. While on the other end, you can experience: dissociation, lethargy, depression, all symptoms of hypoarousal, or the freeze response.

A dysregulated nervous system can look like:

Hyperarousal

  • Anxiety
  • Overwhelm
  • Aggression
  • Anger
  • Racing thoughts
  • Panic

Hypoarousal

  • Feeling disconnected from yourself and your surroundings
  • Shutting down
  • Dissociating
  • Lethargy
  • Feeling numb

Regulating your nervous system is one of the first steps in healing from trauma. It’s important to feel safe in your body when processing intense emotions so you’re able to talk through it without becoming re-traumatized. This grounded, aware, and connected place allows the body and mind to integrate the intense emotional response.

Regulating your nervous system can involve:

  • Movement in the form of exercise, yoga, or a full-body shake
  • Grounding in your senses – using smell, touch, taste, sight, and sounds to bring you back to the present
  • Intentional breathing – deep, slow, and regulated breathing can be a bridge to come into your body
  • Splashing cold water on your hands or face
  • Meditation
  • Bilateral stimulation – therapy modalities like EMDR involve activating both hemispheres of the brain to process the traumatic memory

Seeking help from a trauma-informed therapist can be a transformational first step in your healing journey. Finding someone who specializes in treating trauma and the dysregulated nervous system will help you safely process through the overwhelming emotions and provide you with tools to self-regulate. You can reach out to us at (480) 725-6157 or at chelsey@healingfoundationscounseling.com to learn more about how we can help.