Have you ever experienced a racing heart, sweaty palms, or difficulty breathing during a stressful situation? During a work presentation or a particularly dense moment of navigating traffic, these bouts of nerves help us pay attention and help us tune in to the task at hand. Long-term, however, these are all signs of a dysregulated nervous system.
When faced with periods of stress that last for an extended period of time, our nervous system adapts by increasing activity, leading to a state of overstimulation that can leave us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Even minor stressors, such as tense conversations with our partner or critiques on a work project, can trigger a significant emotional and physical response that can take a long time to recover from. A dysregulated nervous system can contribute to various health issues, including brain fog, chronic pain, hormonal imbalances, dizziness, and fatigue, which may be overlooked or misdiagnosed as other conditions.
The good news is that there are many techniques that can help us understand and then learn to regulate the nervous system. One such framework is polyvagal theory, which provides a deeper understanding of how the nervous system responds to stress and threat and how to promote healing by activating the ventral vagus.
In this blog, we’ll explore the secrets of the nervous system, discuss holistic issues that may arise from a chronically dysregulated system, and share polyvagal techniques that explain how to regulate your nervous system. Whether you’re dealing with anxiety, chronic pain, or simply looking to improve your overall health, understanding and regulating your nervous system can be a powerful tool for finding a felt sense of safety within the body.
What is the Nervous System?
To understand polyvagal theory, and how to regulate your nervous system, we first need to understand the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The nervous system is a complex network of nerves and cells that transmit signals between different parts of the body that regulates many of our body’s automatic functions, such as heart rate, digestion, and breathing. Anatomically speaking, it consists of the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS includes the brain and spinal cord, while the PNS includes all the nerves that extend from the CNS to the rest of the body.
The CNS is further divided into branches: the somatic—a conscious inter-body communication channel between the CNS and our skin and muscles—and autonomic nervous systems—the channel dedicated to connecting the CNS to the visceral organs such as the heart, stomach, and intestines.
An even further division of the autonomic nervous system brings us to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)—the primary players in learning how to regulate your nervous system.
What does the nervous system do?
The nervous system is responsible for controlling and coordinating all the body’s functions, including movement, sensation, perception, and thinking. It receives information from the environment through the senses, processes that information in the brain, and then sends out signals to the muscles and organs to respond appropriately.
Traditional theories of the nervous system focus on just these two systems, the sympathetic(SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems. You may already be familiar with the following classifications:
- The SNS is traditionally thought responsible for the “fight or flight” response, which is activated when we perceive a threat or danger. This response prepares our body to either fight the threat or flee from it. The SNS releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which increase our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate, and redirect blood flow to the muscles to prepare us for action.
- The PNS, on the other hand, is responsible for the “rest and digest” response. This response is activated when we feel safe and relaxed, and it promotes healing, growth, and restoration. The PNS slows down our heart rate and breathing, reduces our blood pressure, and increases our digestion and immune function.
Polyvagal theory expands on this model of the ANS by introducing a third branch, called the social engagement system (SES). According to polyvagal theory, the SES is responsible for our ability to connect with others, communicate effectively, and form social bonds.
The SES is regulated by a nerve called the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to various organs in the body. The vagus nerve has two branches: the dorsal vagus and the ventral vagus.
The dorsal vagus is responsible for the “freeze” response, which is activated when we perceive a life-threatening danger that we cannot fight or flee from. The freeze response is characterized by immobilization, dissociation, and shutdown of bodily functions.
The ventral vagus, on the other hand, is responsible for the social engagement response, which is activated when we feel safe and connected to others. The social engagement response is characterized by calmness, safety, and a sense of belonging.
The Three States of the Autonomic Nervous System
According to polyvagal theory, the ANS operates in three states, each associated with a different branch of the nervous system. These states are hierarchical, meaning that we move from one state to another in response to changing environmental cues.
- The ventral vagal state (social engagement): This state is associated with feelings of safety, social connection, and relaxation. The ventral vagus nerve, which originates in the brainstem, regulates many functions of the body, including heart rate, digestion, and facial expression. When the ventral vagus is activated, we feel calm, connected, and able to engage with the world around us.
- The sympathetic activation state: This state is associated with the fight-or-flight response, which is activated in response to perceived threats or stressors. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, we experience an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, as well as a decrease in digestion and immune function. This state is designed to help us respond to immediate danger, but chronic activation can lead to a variety of health problems, including anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
- The dorsal vagal state (shutdown): This state is associated with immobilization or shutdown. When the dorsal vagus nerve, which also originates in the brainstem, is activated, we experience a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, as well as a decrease in digestive and immune function. This state is associated with feelings of disconnection, dissociation, and helplessness, and is often seen in cases of trauma or chronic stress.
Signs and causes of a dysregulated nervous system
A dysregulated nervous system is one that is out of balance, with too much activation of the sympathetic or dorsal vagal branches and too little activation of the parasympathetic or ventral vagal branches. This can lead to a variety of symptoms, including anxiety, depression, chronic pain, digestive problems, and immune dysfunction.
There are many potential causes of a dysregulated nervous system, including trauma, chronic stress, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and exposure to toxins. In addition, certain medical conditions, such as autoimmune diseases and neurological disorders, can also affect the nervous system.
Holistic issues that may arise from a chronically dysregulated system
A chronically dysregulated nervous system can have a profound impact on overall health and well-being, as it affects many different systems in the body. For example, a dysregulated nervous system can lead to chronic inflammation, which has been linked to a wide range of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
In addition, a dysregulated nervous system can affect mental health, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Understandably, when we’re in these survival states for extended periods, it also greatly affects our ability to create and maintain meaningful relationships.
A chronically dysregulated nervous system can also affect physical health, leading to chronic low energy, digestive problems, and immune dysfunction. Back pain, in particular, has also been linked to sympathetic activation for individuals who haven’t been able to find relief through traditional treatment methods (stretching, massage, etc.). Over time, these issues can become chronic and lead to a lower quality of life.
Polyvagal Techniques for Regulating the Nervous System
Polyvagal theory is a relatively new concept in the field of psychology, first introduced by Dr. Stephen Porges in the late 1990s. As described above, the theory describes how the nervous system responds to stress and threat, and how this response affects our behavior, emotions, and physiological state. The theory has gained popularity in recent years, especially in the field of trauma therapy, as it provides a framework for understanding how trauma affects the nervous system and how to promote healing.
Here are some polyvagal techniques you can try on your own to help regulate your nervous system:
- Deep breathing: Deep breathing is a simple and effective way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation. Try taking slow, deep breaths, focusing on your breath as it enters and leaves your body.
- Mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation is another effective way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce stress. Try sitting quietly for a few minutes each day, focusing on your breath and observing your thoughts without judgment. Mantra chanting, as well as singing and humming can also help to regulate the nervous system by promoting a state of relaxation and reducing the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
- Yoga & Stretching: Yoga combines deep breathing, movement, and meditation, making it an effective way to regulate the nervous system. Try a gentle yoga class or practice specific stretches intended to target the vagus nerve at home using online videos.
- Social connection: The social engagement system is activated when we feel safe and connected to others. Cultivating social connections can help promote healing and reduce stress. Try spending time with friends and family, volunteering, or joining a social group.
- Self-compassion: Practicing self-compassion can help regulate the nervous system by reducing self-criticism and promoting self-care. Try treating yourself with kindness and compassion, as you would a good friend.
Other things you can do on your own that will have a positive impact on your nervous system include walking, participating in aerobic exercise, as well as giving yourself a vagus nerve massage or trying cold water facial immersion or ice massage.
Learning how to regulate your nervous system in holistic therapy
Beyond these suggestions, working with a holistic therapist who understands polyvagal theory can be beneficial for the nervous system by helping individuals to identify and cope with sources of stress and trauma, leading to a reduction in sympathetic nervous system activation. Your therapist may work with you to incorporate the following techiniques into your holistic treatment plan:
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can help to regulate the nervous system by reducing the emotional impact of negative experiences and promoting feelings of calm and relaxation. Sometimes referred to as “tapping,” this technique allows you to hack your nervous system and communicate deep relaxation and calm to your body.
- Biofeedback can help individuals to regulate their nervous system by providing real-time feedback on physiological responses, such as heart rate and breathing.
Coregulation in Holistic Therapy and Beyond
Another important techinque used by therapist is called coregulation. This is the process by which two or more individuals regulate each other’s emotional and physiological states. It is often discussed in the context of interpersonal relationships, particularly those involving caregiving or support, and is seen as an important aspect of healthy attachment and social bonding.
In coregulation, one individual may consciously or unconsciously respond to the emotional or physiological state of the other, and vice versa. For example, a caregiver may comfort a distressed child by holding them, speaking in a soothing voice, and regulating their own breathing to help the child calm down. In this way, the caregiver’s own regulated state can help to regulate the child’s dysregulated state, leading to a sense of safety and security for both individuals.
Coregulation can occur across a range of relationships, including parent-child, romantic partners, friends, and even strangers. It is believed to be a fundamental aspect of human social behavior, and is thought to play a role in various social and emotional processes, including stress reduction, emotion regulation, and social bonding.
In therapeutic settings, coregulation is often seen as an important component of the therapeutic relationship, with the therapist working to create a safe and regulated space in which the client can explore and process their emotions. By providing a regulated and attuned presence, the therapist can help the client to regulate their own emotional and physiological states, leading to increased feelings of safety and trust.
Begin Holistic Therapy in Alpharetta Today
Polyvagal theory provides a powerful framework for understanding how the nervous system responds to stress and threat and how to promote healing and resilience. By learning how to activate the ventral vagus and regulate the nervous system (both during and after your holistic therapy session), we can reduce stress, improve mental and physical health, and find greater balance.
Holistic Wellness Practice offers holistic and integrative mental health care for individuals in Alpharetta, Georgia and online throughout the state. Take charge of your mental health and schedule your free consult with us today.
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Gleyce Almeida-Farrell is a psychotherapist and the founder of Holistic Wellness Practice in Alpharetta, GA. She specializes in helping adults manage stress and overcome symptoms of anxiety and depression utilizing a holistic and integrative approach to mental wellness.
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