In today’s fast-paced world, the impact of traumatic experiences and chronic stress can take a toll on us and leave us with a dysregulated nervous system. The good news is that there are numerous ways to heal your nervous system and rediscover a sense of calm and well-being. In this blog post, we’ll explore 13 effective methods rooted in science and holistic practices to help you regain control over your stress response and promote a healthier, more balanced nervous system.
How the Nervous System Works
One thing I hope you take away from this post is the importance of nervous system regulation and its important role in our mental and emotional well-being.
Before we dive in further, let’s take a moment to understand how the nervous system works. The human body has two nervous systems: the voluntary nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.
The Voluntary Nervous System: The Voluntary Nervous System, also known as the somatic nervous system, is responsible for our conscious control over skeletal muscles and voluntary movements. It enables us to perform activities such as walking, talking, and picking up objects. This system operates under our conscious awareness, allowing us to interact with the external world through purposeful physical actions.
The Autonomic Nervous System: The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) regulates involuntary bodily functions that occur without conscious effort. The ANS is shaped by early childhood experiences and reshaped throughout our lives with ongoing experiences. Our ANS is what we will focus on throughout this post, as this is the part of the nervous system that directly impacts our mental health and can leave us feeling dysregulated, anxious, and uncomfortable.
Our ANS plays a critical role in maintaining homeostasis by controlling functions like heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. According to polyvagal theory, the ANS has two main branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Sympathetic Nervous System: The Sympathetic Nervous System is a branch of the Autonomic Nervous System that prepares the body for the “fight or flight” response in stressful or threatening situations. When activated, the SNS stimulates the adrenal glands, which leads to the secretion of cortisol, a stress hormone, along with adrenaline. It increases heart rate, dilates airways, and redirects blood flow to muscles, preparing the body for rapid and intense physical activity. This system is crucial for responding to immediate dangers and mobilizing the body’s resources for action.
Parasympathetic Nervous System: The Parasympathetic Nervous System has two divisions: Dorsal and Ventral Vagal.
Ventral Vagal: The ventral vagal is the system that allows us to be part of the world, to connect to ourselves, to reach out to others for connection and support, to begin open to change, and to consider different possibilities and feel in flow. What makes us able to be in this system is that we are experiencing a sense of safety.
Dorsal Vagal: The Dorsal Vagal system is when we experience shutdown and lifelessness in an attempt to conserve energy. What we’ve been experiencing feels inescapable, so our ANS responds in a way that attempts to help us survive. We may numb out, disconnect, or dissociate. We’re immobilized- not always completely, although we could be, but we’re more or less going through the motions if we do. We’re feeling more robotic, just not there, disconnected from our bodies and feelings. We also physically move slower as we’re in a state of conserving our energy. Imagine an animal playing dead in an attempt to survive; this is what we’re doing, especially mentally and emotionally; our energy for life is depleted.
Vagus Nerve: The parasympathetic nervous system, along with housing the dorsal vagal and ventral vagus parts, also has a branch known as the vagus nerve; the vagus nerve plays a significant role in regulating many of our bodily functions, including digestion. Under distress, the function of the vagus nerve can be inhibited, which can lead to digestive issues, which can lead to chronic conditions when the distress is ongoing and chronic. When the vagus nerve is activated and functioning well, it promotes the “rest and digest” response, which promotes the functioning of digestive activities.
Trauma and the Nervous System
Oftentimes, we think of trauma as a single traumatic event or experience. But the truth is, trauma is any real or perceived threat to your safety. It can be a single experience, like a car accident or being laughed at in front of classmates. It can also be an accumulation of ongoing experiences, such as a parent who was never around or a coach ridiculing you daily. It can be any sort of experience or an accumulation of experience where there is either too much too soon, too much for too long, or not enough for too long. This “too much” or “not enough” overwhelms your nervous system, particularly when you don’t have the capacity or proper support system to deal with it.
We’ve all experienced trauma to some degree. Childhood trauma is much more common than most people realize. We can recover from some traumatic events faster than others. For instance, if you are teased and bullied at school one day, it can be traumatizing, but if you have appropriate and healthy support from a teacher or parent, you are more likely to heal and be able to move through the experience. However, when we don’t have the proper support, enough support, or the chance to protect ourselves properly, this trauma can stay with us; trauma stays stuck in our bodies until we heal it.
When we work to heal our unique nervous system, we have to remember that it’s a healing process that can take time. The healing journey is about calming our body’s stress response and creating a feeling of safety in our bodies. The more safe we feel mentally, physically, and emotionally, the more our nervous system becomes regulated. The following are some practical ways you can use to help heal and find more calm in your own nervous system.
13 Ways to Heal Your Nervous System for inner peace and calm
1. Mindful Breathing
There are so many different types of breathing exercises regarding breathwork. Breathwork involves a range of techniques designed to improve psychological and physical well-being. A great way to get started is with a simple technique to try is called “box breathing.” To begin, breathe in through your nose as you slowly count to four, hold for a count of four, and then exhale while counting to four. Repeat this cycle for three to four rounds. Breathwork can help reduce stress levels, emotional well-being, and overall nervous system health.
2. Engage in Regular Physical Exercise
Exercise offers holistic support for well-being by harmonizing the autonomic nervous system (ANS), comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. It reduces stress through endorphin release and promotes balance between the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) and “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) ANS branches – jogging briefly stimulates the former, while practices like yoga activate the latter, enhancing relaxation. Exercise also improves heart rate variability (HRV), which is crucial for smooth transitions between rest and alertness. Effective exercise options include yoga, martial arts, jogging, and resistance training. Creating a balanced exercise routine that engages both ANS branches builds resilience, enhances emotional regulation, and fosters overall well-being, empowering you to regulate your autonomic nervous system and attain equilibrium in life.
3. Maintaining a Healthy Diet
A balanced diet is not just about nourishing your body; it plays a pivotal role in your overall well-being, including the health of your nervous and immune systems. The nutrients you consume directly influence the functioning of these systems. A diet rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids provides the building blocks your nervous system needs to transmit signals effectively and maintain its structural integrity. Additionally, a well-balanced diet supports the immune system’s ability to fend off infections and maintain the body’s defense mechanisms. Conversely, a diet high in processed foods, excessive sugar, and unhealthy fats can lead to inflammation, which may adversely affect both your nervous and immune systems. Maintaining a healthy diet rich in healthy fats, proteins, and plants provides your body with the tools it needs to function optimally, promoting physical health and emotional and mental well-being.
4. Nourishing Your Body and Soul
Your diet isn’t just a matter of satisfying hunger; it’s a profound act of self-care that influences your body and soul in intricate ways. By embracing a nourishing diet, you provide your body with the essential tools it requires to embark on its journey of self-healing. Nutrient-dense foods, rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids, become the raw materials for your body’s intricate processes. These nutrients are the building blocks of a well-functioning nervous system, allowing it to transmit signals effectively and maintain its structural integrity. But the impact goes beyond the physical realm. A nourishing diet also profoundly influences your emotional well-being, as certain foods can trigger the release of feel-good neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, promoting a positive mental state.
Beyond the physiological aspects, nourishing your body is an act of self-respect and self-love. It’s a way of honoring your physical vessel, acknowledging its inherent wisdom and capacity for self-healing. It’s a reminder that you deserve to be nourished and cared for. A nourishing diet isn’t about deprivation or rigid rules; it’s about finding balance and cultivating a harmonious relationship with food that respects your body’s unique needs. It’s about savoring the flavors and textures of whole, natural foods and recognizing that every meal is an opportunity to nurture both your body and soul. So, as you embark on your journey of self-healing, remember that your diet is a powerful ally in this process, one that can contribute not only to your physical health but also to your emotional and spiritual well-being.
5. Cultivating Daily Rituals of Relaxation
Incorporate daily relaxation rituals, such as progressive muscle relaxation in which you sit and bring awareness to relaxing parts of your body, such as starting with relaxing your eyes, then your jaw, and moving downward to your neck and shoulders all the way to you get to your feet.
Progressive muscle relaxation helps identify and release physical tension while heightening body awareness. Relaxation rituals serve as grounding anchors, fostering self-compassion and resilience by reminding you to prioritize your well-being amidst the demands of daily life, ultimately facilitating a deeper connection with yourself and enhancing your overall sense of inner calm.
6. Prioritizing Restorative Sleep
Sleep is not merely a state of rest; it’s a vital component of your body’s natural healing and restoration processes, particularly for your nervous system. During sleep, your brain undergoes crucial functions such as memory consolidation and neural repair. It’s a time when your body and mind rejuvenate, enabling you to wake up feeling refreshed and mentally alert. To reap these benefits, it’s imperative to cultivate a consistent sleep routine, which includes a regular bedtime and wake-up time.
A sleep routine helps regulate your body’s internal clock, allowing it to align with your natural circadian rhythm that governs the sleep-wake cycle. This alignment enhances the quality and duration of your sleep, ensuring that you receive the restorative rest your nervous system requires to function optimally. Prioritizing sleep is not an indulgence but a fundamental aspect of self-care that supports your overall well-being, fostering mental clarity, emotional balance, and resilience in the face of life’s challenges.
7. Mindfulness Meditation:
Mindfulness meditation is a practice that centers on being present and fully engaged with whatever you’re doing at the moment. This practice can help rewire the brain to reduce anxiety and stress. When practicing mindfulness, try focusing on your breath and observing your thoughts without judgment. Mindfulness meditation can help enhance the relaxation response in your nervous system.
While it’s common to do this while sitting, you can also practice this while walking, swimming laps, cooking, knitting, or any sort of repetitive activity where you can observe your thoughts and focus on your breath. This practice isn’t about quieting your mind but learning to observe with kindness and curiosity. Doing this regularly, even for a few minutes daily, can improve your mental clarity and emotional stability.
8. Spending Time in Nature
Spending time outdoors in natural environments has profound effects on our nervous systems. Whether hiking a mountain or simply walking in a park, getting out into nature can significantly lower cortisol levels, a stress hormone, and improve your mood. Connecting with nature has been shown to reduce blood pressure, enhance immune system function, and increase feelings of well-being. It’s not just about outdoors but immersing yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells to help connect with the earth and yourself.
9. Sound Therapy
Listening to certain types of music or sounds can have a deeply relaxing effect on the nervous system. Sound therapy, which might include listening to nature sounds, classical music, bilateral stimulation, or specific frequencies, can help reduce cortisol levels and decrease stress, all contributing to a more regulated nervous system. The rhythmic and repetitive aspects of music and sound can help to quiet racing thoughts and promote a calmer mind.
10. Laughter Therapy
Laughter is a natural stress reliever. It triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Laughter also decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving resistance to disease. Watching a comedy show or movie, joining around with friends and family, or looking at yourself in the mirror and start laughing-even if you have to fake it at first, you may find that it comes naturally after. All these simple ways can help lighten your mood and bring a positive shift to your nervous system.
Utilizing essential oils like lavender, bergamot, and sandalwood can calm the nervous system. Aromatherapy stimulates smell receptors in the nose, sending messages through the nervous system to the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls emotions. This can help to reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and improve sleep quality. Incorporating aromatherapy into daily routines, such as through diffusers or rollers, can be a simple yet effective way to enhance your overall quality of life.
12. Positive Social Interactions
When we feel dysregulated and move into the sympathetic and dorsal vagal states, we begin to disconnect from others and isolate more, which only perpetuates the cycle and can further fuel our dysregulation. Part of what creates stress and trauma is a feeling that we are isolated and disconnected from others without support in handling the situation or experience.
Engaging in positive social activities and building supportive relationships can have a profound impact on not just your nervous system but your overall health. Positive social interactions release neurotransmitters like oxytocin and serotonin, enhancing happiness and reducing stress levels. Whether it’s spending time with friends, joining a club, or volunteering, nurturing social connections is vital for your emotional health and resilience.
13. EFT Tapping
The emotional Freedom Technique, also known as EFT tapping or just “tapping,” has a positive effect on reducing stress and anxiety, making it a great technique to use when you are experiencing nervous system dysregulation. It’s a practical and easy body-based therapeutic tool that has been researched and clinically proven to help people calm their physiology and anxious thoughts and help reduce symptoms of physical pain.
EFT is commonly called “tapping” because you tap on the meridian points, stimulating these points on your body while tuning into a specific issue or limiting belief. Stimulating the specific points helps reduce the emotional distress in response to the issue, helping to restore energy balance in your body. From this place of reducing emotional distress and having calmer physiology, you can think more clearly and shift your thinking.
While you can find relief and more regulation in your nervous system through self-care tapping, this blog post goes into more detail on how to use EFT Tapping.
A Healthy Nervous System
The thing to know about a healthy nervous system is that you will still experience moving between your ventral vagal to your sympathetic to your dorsal vagal and back through regularly in times of stress. A healthy nervous system means you have resilience and the ability to move through the different states as the ups and downs of life come your way. These practices are meant to support you in doing just that, building that resistance to move throughout the states in a healthy, manageable way.
If you have been stuck in a state of dysregulation for quite some time or experienced chronic, ongoing periods of stress, you may need personal support to help you better navigate nervous system regulation and heal your nervous system at the root cause. Many people find that working with a trained professional is beneficial in accelerating their healing. Learn more about accelerating your own nervous system healing here.
Karla Kueber is here to support you in overcoming imposter syndrome and perfectionism so you can stop procrastinating, feeling stuck, and holding yourself back from your goals. Karla is here to help you believe in yourself and own your successes. You can book a freee discovery call with her here.