The Importance of a Balanced Nervous System
The nervous system plays an important role in maintaining overall health and well-being. It’s responsible for transmitting signals between different parts of the body, and is essential for the optimal functioning of various bodily functions and processes, such as movement, digestion, respiration and cognition.
When the nervous system is regulated or in balance, it’s able to promote a state of calmness and relaxation, allowing the body to efficiently respond to stressors and maintain equilibrium. A dysregulated or imbalanced nervous system, on the other hand, can lead to a wide range of conditions and issues that can have a negative impact on both physical and mental health.
Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System
Our nervous system works largely as an internal software for the body, controlling movements, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and more. Learning about the different nervous systems in the body is the first step to understanding how mental and physical health are interconnected.
The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord, and acts as a control center, as it receives information from sensory organs and coordinates responses throughout the body.
The peripheral nervous system includes control of muscles and movement, the somatic nervous system, and regulation of organ systems and essential bodily functions, the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, digestion and sexual arousal., which work harmoniously to maintain a delicate balance in the body.
Within the ANS, there are two branches: the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems. Both of these systems work harmoniously to promote balance and homeostasis, and help us respond adaptively to internal and external stimuli. The sympathetic system is largely thought of as a ‘gas’ pedal, positioning the body for action or ‘fight or flight,’ whereas the parasympathetic system is associated with the ‘rest and digest’ state, slowing the body down.
Sympathetic Nervous System
Think of the sympathetic nervous system as a mobilization system responsible for the body’s “fight-or-flight” response.
It functions like a gas pedal, activating during times of stress or danger. When faced with a very stressful situation, heart rate and blood pressure increase, as we prepare to take immediate action for survival. Other signs of activation include fast and shallow breathing, tension in the neck and shoulders, and feelings of anxiousness. This is the sympathetic nervous system at work.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is classically called the “rest-and-digest” state. It helps the body heal, recover and conserve energy when we feel safe and promotes relaxation and restoration. In this state, our heart rate may slow down, we feel more focused, and we can eat, swallow and digest without issues. The Social Engagement System is activated, supporting the ability to connect socially with others, access higher brain functions, and have balanced, efficient bodily systems.
Within the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve, the primary nerve governing parasympathetic activity is the vagus nerve. As the longest nerve in the body, the vagus extends from the brainstem to the base of the trunk, interacting with many visceral organs along its journey. It also serves as a bi-directional informational highway, with 20% of its fibers extending from the brain to the body, and 80% from body to brain, acting as a surveillance system for all internal, external and relational changes. The vagus nerve affects facial expressions, tone of voice, heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV), breathing, and the function of the spleen, liver, kidneys and intestines.
It’s important to acknowledge that “fight-or-flight” and “rest-and-digest” states may look different from person to person. What “calm” and “stressful” mean and look like for someone can be uniquely influenced by individual lifestyle factors, health conditions, and lived experiences or presentations.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems branches play equally vital roles in maintaining optimal mental health and physical well-being. But what happens when the autonomic nervous system is dysregulated?
Understanding how these systems function together is key to gaining insights into how mental states and physiological health affect each other. This knowledge opens up avenues for therapeutic approaches that consider both mind and body wellness, integrating the two together.
Signs of Nervous System Dysregulation
Recognizing the signs of a dysregulated nervous system is crucial in being able to address underlying issues. When the ANS becomes dysregulated, it can manifest in various physiological symptoms.
One common sign of an overactive, dysregulated nervous system is heightened sensitivity to stimuli. For example, individuals may experience increased irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, or trouble focusing. They may tend to feel overwhelmed or easily triggered by everyday situations. Physical symptoms can also manifest, such as difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, digestive issues, and muscle tension or pain.
An underactive, dysregulated nervous system can present different symptoms, such as low energy levels, sluggishness and reduced motivation. This can also lead to struggles with focus and attention, feeling lethargic, or being disconnected from surroundings.
- Physical signs: nervous tension, muscle tension, digestive issues, sleep disturbances
- Emotional signs: mood swings, anxiety, depression, irritability
- Cognitive signs: persistent worry or fearfulness, chronic stress, poor memory, difficulty concentrating or focusing
Treating a Dysregulated Nervous System: Techniques and Approaches
Supporting someone stuck in a state of chronic nervous system dysregulation requires a comprehensive and integrative approach that addresses the underlying causes to promote healing, rather than looking at individual symptoms. Several methods have been shown to be effective in helping to restore balance to the ANS and alleviate unwanted symptoms.
Listening Therapy: The Safe and Sound Protocol
The vagus nerve has a key role in regulating the body’s stress response. Listening therapies that activate the vagus nerve using specially treated music can have a profound impact on physical and emotional well-being and the regulation of the ANS.
Dr. Stephen Porges’ Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) is a powerful listening therapy that does this by using a curated selection of music that has been filtered through a patented algorithm to highlight frequencies in the audio that are similar to the human voice. This program is designed to provide non-invasive stimulation to the vagus nerve with the goal of retuning the nervous system back to a state of safety and balance.
Backed by decades of research and evidence, the SSP may also be helpful in reducing symptoms and supporting overall health and resiliency for people seeking support for depression and anxiety, neurodevelopmental differences such as autism, hyperactivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning difficulties, sensory processing differences, trauma history, and more.
Another effective method is Somatic Experiencing, which focuses on releasing stored trauma and tension in the body. Developed by Dr. Peter Levine, this approach helps individuals reconnect with their bodily sensations, allowing for the release of trapped energy and promoting a sense of safety and regulation.
Somatic Experiencing can be safely and effectively combined with the Safe and Sound Protocol to create the conditions for restoration individually, intergenerationally and collectively.
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a commonly used technique that involves cultivating present-moment awareness and non-judgmental acceptance. By practicing mindfulness, individuals can develop greater self-awareness, reduce stress levels, and regulate nervous system responses.
Body-based therapies, such as yoga, tai chi, or qigong, can be beneficial in treating a dysregulated nervous system. These practices combine gentle physical movements with breathwork to promote relaxation, improve body awareness and enhance overall well-being.
Clinical treatment options may include neurofeedback therapy, which uses real-time monitoring of brain activity to train individuals to regulate their own brainwaves. Research suggests this technique can help rewire neural pathways associated with dysregulation and promote healthier patterns of functioning within the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Supporting a Dysregulated Nervous System
Since each person’s experience is unique, treatment approaches should be tailored to individual needs to be effective. Qualified professionals, such as therapists or healthcare providers, should consider a trauma-informed approach to healing.
By using these various techniques and approaches, individuals can embark on a journey towards healing their dysregulated nervous system and restoring balance in their lives.
1. Mind-body practices for calming the nervous system
Yoga for stress relief, meditation techniques for relaxation, deep breathing exercises to reduce anxiety and promote balance
2. Lifestyle changes to support a healthy nervous system:
Sufficient sleep and restful activities, regular exercise to release tension, balanced nutrition for proper nourishment, reducing exposure to stressors (e.g., caffeine or excessive screen time) , establishing healthy boundaries in relationships.
Rebalancing the Autonomic Nervous System: Self-care Techniques and Practices
Here are some effective techniques and practices that can be used to help manage stress, promote relaxation, and enhance overall well-being.
Self-care techniques focus on nurturing the mind, body and spirit, allowing us to restore harmony within ourselves. From mindfulness meditation to deep-breathing exercises, there are many methods that can help alleviate stress. Engaging in activities, such as yoga or tai chi, can help release tension from the body while calming the mind. Practicing gratitude journaling or engaging in creative pursuits, like painting or writing, can provide an outlet for emotional expression and promote inner peace. These can be especially effective when combined with bottom-up therapeutic practices to provide an integrative approach.
1. Establishing a consistent self-care routine
Adequate sleep, regular exercise or movement, stress management techniques (e.g., journaling or hobbies), mindful eating and hydration.
2. Seeking professional support
Counseling, therapy, or coaching to address underlying emotional triggers, bodywork therapies (such as massage or acupuncture) to release tension and promote relaxation.
Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery, can help with unwinding physically and mentally. Consciously focusing on relaxing each part of the body or visualizing serene scenes can activate the body’s natural relaxation response and reduce feelings of anxiety, chronic pain, or overwhelm.
Incorporating these as part of treatment plans can be supportive in maintaining a healthy balance within the nervous system, and can empower clients with tools to navigate life’s challenges with resilience and serenity.
Symptoms of a Dysregulated Nervous System: How to Identify and Manage Them
It is not uncommon for individuals to experience an overstimulated nervous system, which can lead to difficulty relaxing, or chronic nervous system dysregulation. This can be a result of various factors such as excessive stress, stressful events, constant exposure to technology, or an overwhelming workload. Recognizing the symptoms of an overstimulated nervous system is crucial in order to take action and prevent further complications.
By recognizing the signs of an overstimulated nervous system and taking proactive steps towards managing them effectively, individuals can regain control over their mental and physical well-being. Remember that prioritizing self-care is not a luxury but a necessity in today’s fast-paced world.
1. Physical symptoms
Physical symptoms are often the body’s way of expressing stress and anxiety. When faced with overwhelming situations, our bodies can react in various ways. Racing heart, rapid breathing, tense muscles, and digestive issues such as stomachaches or nausea are common physical manifestations of stress.
A racing heart is a result of the body’s natural “fight or flight” stress response in the sympathetic nervous system, where the heart pumps blood faster to prepare for action. Rapid breathing helps oxygenate the body during stressful situations. Tense muscles occur as a result of increased muscle tension caused by stress hormones.
Digestive issues like stomachaches or nausea can be triggered by stress-induced changes in digestion and gut function. The gut-brain connection plays a significant role in these symptoms as chronic stress also can disrupt normal digestive processes.
Recognizing these symptoms is crucial in managing and addressing stress effectively. By understanding how our bodies respond to stress, we can take steps to alleviate these symptoms, regulate the autonomic nervous system and promote overall well-being.
2. Emotional symptoms
When the nervous system is dysregulated, the emotional symptoms you may experience can have a significant impact on your overall well-being and quality of life. When we experience frequent irritability, heightened anxiety, or feelings of being overwhelmed or on edge, it can be challenging to navigate through daily activities, relationships, and stressful events.
Frequent irritability can make even the smallest things feel like major annoyances, leading to strained interactions with others. Heightened anxiety can leave us constantly on edge, worrying about future traumatic events and feeling a sense of unease. Feeling overwhelmed or on edge can make it difficult to concentrate and focus on tasks, leading to decreased productivity and increased stress levels.
Recognizing these emotional symptoms is crucial in order to address them effectively. It is important to take steps towards managing our emotions in a healthy way, such as practicing relaxation techniques, seeking support from loved ones or professionals, and engaging in self-care activities that promote mental well-being.
By acknowledging these emotional symptoms and taking proactive steps towards managing them, we can strive for a healthier and more balanced emotional state and a regulated nervous system.
3. Cognitive symptoms
Cognitive symptoms can have a significant impact on daily life, making it difficult to focus, remember important information, or even carry out simple tasks. One common cognitive symptom is racing thoughts, where the mind feels overwhelmed with a constant stream of ideas and worries. This can make it challenging to concentrate on one task at a time and can lead to feelings of frustration and overwhelm.
Difficulty concentrating is another cognitive symptom of nervous system dysregulation. It becomes hard to stay focused on a specific task or conversation, leading to decreased productivity and potential misunderstandings. This difficulty can be particularly frustrating for those who are used to being able to concentrate easily.
Forgetfulness or memory lapses are also common cognitive symptoms that can impact daily life. Important details may slip through the cracks, appointments may be missed, or conversations may be forgotten altogether. This can create challenges in both personal and professional settings and may lead to feelings of embarrassment or frustration.
Recognizing these cognitive symptoms is crucial in seeking appropriate support and management strategies to achieve nervous system regulation. Whether it’s through therapy, lifestyle changes, or medication, addressing these symptoms can help individuals regain control over their cognitive functioning and improve their overall quality of life.
Prioritizing Nervous System Regulation for Well-being
Providers in the healing profession should be aware of the importance of nervous system health in the overall healing journey. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems both play vital roles in regulating bodily functions, supporting mental health and maintaining well-being.
Finding an approach that prioritizes nervous system health requires consistent commitment, but can ultimately help clients make significant progress in therapy, leading to improved mental clarity, reduced anxiety levels and enhanced cognitive function. Therapeutic tools, such as the Safe and Sound Protocol, can help ease the process of regulating the nervous system, allowing clients to lead healthier and happier lives.
Discover the Safe and Sound Protocol
Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, the SSP is a listening therapy designed to unlock your client’s ability to think, feel, and connect better through nervous system regulation.
The SSP isn’t simply five hours of music; it’s a comprehensive approach to healing. This unique listening therapy is a journey that brings together client, therapist, and the SSP to create a safe space for brain and body integration and healing to achieve impactful, long-lasting results.