In a prior article, we reviewed how our nervous system develops according to our earliest and most significant experiences. Foundationally, it oversees processes such as rest and digest, and fight or flight/freeze or fawn when we are in real danger. However, the data our bodies receive during our formative years determines if our nervous system functions properly or reacts maladaptively. In short, if there is a history of trauma or unmet need our nervous system perceives the world, or certain situations/sounds/triggers as a threat. Consequently, it will cause physicological symptoms to spur us into action, in an attempt to keep us safe. Many times when happens to us, we are not even aware of it. Although we can be grateful for this important function when needed, if our system is overtaxed or too sensitive, the result will be psychological distress and distortion.
We Can Re-Write the Code
Interestingly, while healthy aspects of our nervous system function are widely experienced by everyone, maladaptive responses are hyper-specific. It is important to realize why this occurs. Not only do we have our own individual operating software, but the responses occur because we are intricately attuned to those around us. Due to this reciprocal nature, if we have dysfunctional responses they will significantly interfere with our intimate relationships. Hence, dependent on the beliefs our body holds strong, the perception of threat can be very real, even when it is not. Learning to understand the stories we tell ourselves, because of learned reactions, is vital to growth and peaceful existence. When we do this, we are essentially calming the body, telling it that it is safe. Luckily, there are many ways to rewrite the code programmed into us.
Tips for Today, Tips for Tomorrow
Below is a list, grouped into categories, of ways we can regulate and soothe our nervous system. We will explore a few in detail. However, another key component to be aware of when tending this delicate sensory apparatus is noting the difference between utilizing these practices for quick fixes versus investing in longer-term maintenance health. Markedly, some applications will help us quickly. Such as to manage panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, etc. While others, when practiced routinely, will help bypass triggers or maladaptive responses much faster over time. In essence, just like a computer, the more we do these things, the more space clears from our operating system. Correspondingly, this will create new space to “download” better programs. As adults, we get to choose the stories we tell ourselves. Granted, we all need a little help.
Breathing and Relaxation Techniques for Quick Nervous System Calming
Meditation and Mindfulness
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Breathing techniques are a great way to regulate the nervous system. Indeed, we are able to utilize them immediately and are completely free. For instance, one technique is Box Breathing. This method has us breathe in slowly through the nose while counting to four. Next, hold our breath for four seconds, before slowly exhaling through the mouth for four seconds. Finally, avoid inhaling or exhaling for another four seconds. Lastly, we can repeat these steps several times until we feel more calm. There are many other exercises such as the 4-7-8 Method, alternating nostril, Lion’s Breath, or holding the breath. When we are mindful of our breath and pace it, the pattern sends a message to our body that we have things under control.
By the same token, meditation and mindfulness are additional ways to heal an anxious nervous system. In their simplest forms, both require slowing down and being present, instead of thinking about the future or the past. In a nutshell, sitting quietly and training ourselves to be the observer of our thoughts, instead of personalizing them, is a huge step in healing. We do well to remember that feelings are not final, and feelings are not facts. But it takes some re-conditioning to communicate this to a flared nervous system.
Finally, there is Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Again, a free technique that simply involves purposefully tensing and relaxing muscle groups in a specific pattern. Research shows that PMR offers a range of benefits, including pain relief and better sleep. Altogether, these repetitive habits help us learn to read our bodies more accurately. This in turn allows us to be the driver when our triggers try to take the wheel.
Physical Well-being and Lifestyle for Improving the Nervous System Maintenance
Reduce Caffeine and Sugar
Avoid Excessive Stimulants
Social and Emotional Well-Being for Strengthening the Nervous System
Laughter and Fun
Did you know that having safe people around can heal your nervous system? Nevertheless, although it may seem counterintuitive, many people who experience trauma self-isolate. The fear of getting hurt causes them to do exactly the opposite of what their heart desires. Yet, having social connections and addressing trauma in therapy are balms to nervous systems that are constantly scanning for danger. In effect, healthy friendships and safe experiences with a therapist re-write the story and teach us to trust in other people again.
Moreover, maybe we need to put laughing on our calendars! Although healthy adults laugh a great detail in their everyday lives, it is not always the case for others. Many adults who suffer from nervous systems that are so overstimulated that finding humor as a baseline feels irresponsible. Their body tells them they need to always be on alert for emotional or physical threats. So making time for levity in our lives can quite actually heal us.
Some final ways that social and emotional well-being contributes to nervous system regulation are through setting boundaries. In general, the more of a people pleaser we are – the more we are essentially on auto-pilot. This means, we are allowing old programs of what we should do, or shouldn’t do to move us through our lives without our conscious awareness. Unfortunately, when we do this, our subconscious desires and feelings feel the need to violently break through the surface. This tension is felt in the body and our nervous system, when developed maladaptively, perceives this as a call to arms. It only wants to protect us!
Environmental and Sensory Experiences to Boost the Nervous System
Nature and Fresh Air
Limit Screen Time
Holistic Wellness Practices to Reassure the Nervous System
Warm Baths and Saunas
In keeping with the aim of finding free techniques to befriend our nervous system, many people find a warm bath or sauna relieves their anxiety. Significantly, the warmth of both activities can improve blood flow, therefore potentially improving heart health. Similarly, the heat soothes muscles, improves sleep, and assists with alleviating depression. Lowering stress and good rest will always be a boon to a hypervigilant nervous system.
Of all the methods for treating the nervous system, the one not for the faint of heart is cold water plunges. Although the research is still pending, some studies found “that cold water plunging increases blood concentrations of dopamine, the happy hormone made in the brain, by 250%.” Accordingly, instituting a sense of peace and contentment into our lives makes up feel safe. When we feel at ease, our nervous systems are calm and operate healthily.
An incredible, less widely used resource for reassuring our nervous system is EFT Tapping. A mind-body therapy that draws on traditional Chinese medicine, it began alongside acupuncture. Originally used by modern clinicians for treating stress, phobias, and fear, it is now also used for addressing anxiety and self-limiting beliefs and thoughts. According to traditional Chinese medicine “the human body has more than 2,000 acupoints, and these points are connected by pathways, or meridians, through which life-force energy called “chi” flows, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Chinese Medicine holds that this energy flow is responsible for overall health. The disruption of the flow may cause disease. Stimulating specific acupoints is thought to improve the energy flow and, by extension, overall health.”
Starting Our Next Chapter
A gentle reminder, healing is not linear, nor is it a destination we arrive at. Therefore, as we tread along our therapeutic journey, learning the ways our body acts to protect us, is a gift. The nervous system serves an integral part of our health and well-being. Notwithstanding some of the bad programs downloaded into our mainframes without our consent. Hopefully, this article, discussions with healthy friends and family or a trusted therapist, encourage us to know we can upload new skills and new techniques that will lead to new hopes, starting today.