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Why Regulating The Nervous System Is Important

Mary-Lauren O’Crowley, MA, NCC, LPC

Many of us have heard about regulating our emotions but not as many may know about regulating our nervous system. Yes, we can in fact intentionally relax our nervous system and help our bodies to get out of the fight, flight, freeze state. Our nervous system is responsible for respiration, heart rate, body temperature, digestion, and metabolism. More specifically, our sympathetic nervous system controls the fight-flight-freeze response. Our parasympathetic nervous system controls the rest and digest response, which essentially means the nervous system controls the body’s ability to relax. It helps maintain a sense of homeostasis by overseeing resting heart rate, metabolism, and breathing rate. 

When we feel scared, overwhelmed, angry, or anxious, among others, we may notice that we also experience physical sensations like trembling, heart palpitations, ringing ears, or even sweating or clamminess. These are messages from our sympathetic nervous system letting us know that it has detected a threat. When we feel relaxed and at ease, we can bet that our parasympathetic nervous system is doing its job. Basically, these two branches of the nervous system work opposite of one another, and while this may be confusing, it can work to our benefit to know how to activate or deactivate each one.

 Our nervous system is instrumental in keeping us alive and ensuring our safety from threats, but over time and as a result of things like chronic stress and trauma, our nervous system can begin to exhibit dysfunction and become aroused by perceived threats rather than real ones. It is estimated that over 70 million people struggle with symptoms of nervous system dysregulation including dizziness, fatigue, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal issues, brain fog, and depression. With proper training, however, “your nervous system can move in and out of various states throughout the day with more conscious control. When this happens, it’s much easier to heal and rebalance your nervous system” (Brain Harmony, 2021). 

Where Can I Start? 

Exercise 

Exercise increases endorphins, which are often labeled as the happy hormones. When the body experiences these endorphins and the subsequent state of happiness, it also receives the message that we are safe. So hop on your bike, get to the gym, or take a stroll around the neighborhood. The biggest takeaway here: choose something you enjoy! All exercise has proven mental and physical health benefits. If you choose something that you despise, it kind of defeats the purpose. 

Grounding

Grounding is the term for using our senses to root ourselves in the present moment. When are nervous system goes on high alert and we experience catastrophic thoughts or uncomfortable emotions, grounding can help us distract ourselves from our internal experience and refocus on our external experience. This gives our parasympathetic nervous system the opportunity to take over and restore our body to a more relaxed state. You might try the 5-4-3-2-1 method: Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. 

Breath Work 

A tried and true method, our breath, namely our exhale has the power to calm the body and return the nervous system to a regulated and relaxed state. Long, deep breaths signal the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down. The key is to allow the exhale to be longer than the inhale. You may try inhaling through your nose for a count of 4-5 and exhaling softly through your mouth for a count of 6-7. It can be especially satisfying to place your hand on your chest as you complete a round of breathing as you should notice your heart rate decreasing. 

There are many more techniques for regulating the nervous system and mitigating chronic stress including body scans, meditation, and yoga. No program or technique is one size fits all so it may help to play around with a few different options and notice what your body responds most to. If you would like to work with a therapist to determine what regiment is best for you, please connect with the intake specialists at Symmetry Counseling to get matched with a Chicago counselor today! 

**It is important to note that if you have experienced trauma including sexual assault, domestic violence, or death, you may want to consider speaking to a mental health professional to determine the best course of treatment. While nervous system regulation can be incredibly impactful in reducing overall arousal within the body, it cannot replace trauma-specific treatment measures.**

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