Nervous system dysregulation is one of the key markers of psychological dysfunction in many mental health conditions.
It can interfere greatly with our decision-making process, the way we perceive the world and those we interact with on a daily basis.
It can also affect our self-perception and cause feelings of helplessness if the symptoms are both persistent and severe enough.
This is why a regulated nervous system is such a vital part of multiple recovery processes.
The nervous system responses we experience inform us of whether we are safe or unsafe, which in turn promotes further symptomatic responses.
And so, regulating your nervous system is one of the key components in reclaiming a better quality of life.
What Is The Nervous System?
The nervous system can be thought of as the control centre of the body.
While it’s true that the heart, brain and gut all play crucial roles in how you both function and interact with the world, the nervous system connects all of them and many other parts of your anatomy, also.
In fact, your nervous system affects every aspect of your health.
Anatomically, your nervous system is broken into two main areas:
Central Nervous System (CNS): Your central nervous system is comprised of the brain and spinal cord. It helps control functions such as thought, movement, emotion, breathing, heart rate, and body temperature.
Peripheral Nervous System: Your peripheral nervous system is made up of the nerves that extend out from your central nervous system. These nerves relay messages to the rest of your body, including your limbs, glands and organs.
Your peripheral nervous system is also made up of two parts:
Somatic Nervous System (SNS): This controls much of the movement within your body. It carries signals from your brain that allows you to consciously move your body and also your sense of smell, sound, taste, and touch.
Autonomic Nervous System (ANS): This controls and regulates the involuntary physiological processes of the body. It’s made up of the sympathetic nervous system, parasympathetic nervous and enteric nervous system.
How Does a Dysregulated Nervous System Affect Your Mental Health?
The primary parts of the nervous system that impact the majority of mental health conditions are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The limbic system, which is also part of the central nervous system connected to the brain also plays a crucial role.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for part of our survival mechanism.
Our sympathetic nervous system has evolved over millions of years to protect us from perceived threats from predators, emotional stress and other traumatic situations.
When our sympathetic nervous system is activated and/or triggered, it leads to accelerated heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle contraction, and the release of adrenaline, epimerase and other stress-signifying hormones.
These mechanisms have evolved to help us recognise and escape from danger instead of passively accepting our fate.
Nowadays, living in cities, we aren’t exposed to anywhere near the same danger as our ancestors.
However, our sympathetic nervous system is still a vital part of our human experience, and being a part of our autonomic nervous system, it functions without our conscious input.
Meaning, it’s entirely possible to fall into states of dysregulation even when there is no real danger present.
Those individuals who experience mostly sympathetic dysregulation are referred to as being sympathetic dominant.
And so, when danger – or perceived danger – is present, the individual will enter into a state of hyperarousal.
This is the classic fight-or-flight response.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic is located between the brain and spinal cord and is sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” part of the nervous system.
When the body has entered into a sympathetic nervous system response, it requires the parasympathetic to regulate its over-excited functions.
So the parasympathetic serves – in part – to bring down the effects of the sympathetic nervous system.
It also assists in digestion, procreation, and bringing the body back down to a state of security.
The parasympathetic also affects the heart, the quality and rate of breath, and muscle relaxation, along with the release of cortisol and other stress hormones to bring the body down to a state of regulation.
However, the parasympathetic can also be responsible for creating its own states of dysregulation.
The parasympathetic controls the freeze and fawn states of nervous system dysregulation that can also lead to dissociation.
If an individual moves predominately into states of freezing or fawning, this is known as being parasympathetic dominant.
What Is Nervous System Dysregulation?
Experiencing chronic nervous system deregulation can cause an individual to respond to external stimuli in a way that doesn’t match reality.
Over time, this can lead to more than just episodes of nervous dysregulation, but additional physical, mental and emotional health issues.
What Are The Additional Signs of a Dysregulated Nervous System?
Here are some of the key markers.
Feeling on edge and being overwhelmed: The state of overwhelm is one of the most apparent signs of nervous system dysregulation. This can subsist as an underlying feeling even when you aren’t in a state of noticeable dysregulation.
Chronic pain and other illnesses: Over time, if you’re experiencing chronic nervous system dysregulation, it can lead to other physical symptoms that have no apparent explanation or cause. This is usually a sign you’ve been experiencing high levels of sympathetic nervous system responses for an extended period.
Being highly sensitive to external stimuli: You may find yourself overwhelmed by loud noises, crowds, and the emotional state of other people. This can sometimes be known as being a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Experiencing sleep problems and daytime fatigue: You may often find yourself experiencing poor sleep, which then leads to fatigue during the day. This can then lead to difficulty concentrating as well as other irregularities such as inconsistent body temperature.
Attention and concentration problems: With so much of your body’s capacity – and attention – being taken up by the signals firing off from your nervous system, it can also make it extremely hard to focus on tasks that require long periods of focus either in school or at work.
Skin and gut issues: It’s also not uncommon for conditions like rosacea and IBS to accompany acute/chronic forms of nervous system dysregulation.
Common Mental Health Conditions with a Dysregulated Nervous System
The nervous system is such a complex part of our human physiology, especially when it comes to responses relating to mental health conditions. It’s impossible to give a singular answer as to how it functions.
The truth is that depending on the type of mental health condition, different parts of the nervous system, will be activated meaning a different approach will be needed to help regulate those responses.
Sympathetic Nervous System Dysregulation
Here are some examples of sympathetic nervous system deregulation.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
As the symptom set of OCD is characterised by obsessions and compulsions, it falls very much into the fight or flight response of sympathetic nervous dysregulation.
When an individual with OCD is triggered, they’re stuck in a cycle known as a ‘limbic loop,’ which causes dysregulation within the basal ganglia of the brain.
This then leads to the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
The onset of sympathetic nervous system dysregulation is quite different in ADHD.
It’s still rooted in emotional dysregulation, but the pathway and how it manifests as a symptom is rooted in a different part of the central nervous system.
ADHD inhibits an individual’s capacity to regulate their emotions in the face of perceived setbacks or challenges. This then leads to inappropriate emotional responses relative to the experience.
This can then lead to the fight or flight response as the individual with ADHD receives a flood of emotion that overwhelms the nervous system,
Parasympathetic Nervous System Dysregulation
Here are some examples of parasympathetic nervous system deregulation.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Parasympathetic responses are commonplace in those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. (C-PTSD).
As the parasympathetic nervous system controls the freeze state, it can lead to a shutting down, numbing out and dissociating from reality.
In those who are survivors of significant trauma, this is known as a trauma response.
The imprinted trauma that’s stored within the body tells the nervous system put to countermeasures in place to protect from experiencing any further harm.
This is known as hypoarousal.
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
Individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can also exhibit parasympathetic responses.
One example of this is in the avoidance of abandonment in which there is a swing from neediness and clinginess to becoming distant as a defence mechanism.
This trauma response comes from relational distress and feeling overwhelmed by the dynamic of the connection, which creates a freeze state and the resulting sense of shutdown.
Those who live with borderline also move into a parasympathetic response when experiencing suicide ideation, as well as when experiencing depressive symptoms.
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Can also Inter-function
Although the above are examples of how the sympathetic and parasympathetic work, in context, it’s important to know that a combination of both sympathetic and parasympathetic responses may present in these conditions.
Nervous system responses are complex, and it’s impossible to say that one condition conforms exclusively to one type of response over another.
For example, someone with borderline may exhibit elements of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
They can shut down and also leave a relationship when things become too overwhelming.
How To Regulate A Dysregulated Nervous System
There is no one magic technique that can resolve all nervous system dysregulation. Literally, every body has different needs. Added to that, every individual has their own preferences, capacities and access to different resources.
The way that you choose to regulate is going to depend entirely on your preferences.
The way your body responds to the self-regulation techniques you choose depends on its needs.
Here are some self-regulation techniques that are backed up by significant evidence-based research:
Deep Breathing: When the sympathetic nervous system is engaged, it sends more oxygen to the limbs to ready the body to flee potentially dangerous situations.
This means there’s less oxygen available for the brain – namely the thinking brain, and the prefrontal cortex. This, in turn, makes it difficult to think clearly.
Engaging in cycles of deep breathing regulates the sympathetic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic, which is responsible for the heart rate and muscle contraction.
A great technique is the 4-7-8 breathing exercise developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. You can try this yourself by following these steps.
- Exhale through your mouth making a whoosh sound.
- Then, close your mouth and inhale gently through your nose for a count of 4
- Now, hold this breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale completely through the mouth, making a whoosh sound for a count of 8.
- This counts as one breath. Complete this three more times for a total of four breath.
This helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help calm an agitated nervous system response.
Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong: These eastern forms of body movement are incredibly effective at promoting greater ease within the body.
Although each discipline has its own unique flavour, they all promote slow fluid movements, being with yourself and bringing more awareness to your body by regulating your breathing.
Yoga especially has a strong focus on the breath, which can help strengthen the peripheral nervous system, although all of these disciplines invite you to bring more awareness to the body.
Meditation & Guided Meditation: Meditation has long been recognised as a way of regulating your nervous system. Meditating serves to increase the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help bring your body back to a state of balance.
Studies have suggested that developing a long-term meditation practice can bring about permanent changes in the autonomic nervous system. Thus, you can increase your window of tolerance to help you self-regulate.
Walking in Nature: Taking a walk in nature, particularly in forested environments has been shown to have therapeutic effects on the autonomic nervous system in those suffering from hypertension.
There have been many evidence-based studies backing up this assertion. The practice of walking out in forests has sometimes been referred to as “forest therapy.”
Being within and viewing a forested environment has been shown to decrease the cerebral flow in the prefrontal cortex, reduce blood pressure and pulse rate, increase parasympathetic nerve activity, suppress sympathetic nerve activity and decrease salivary cortisol concentrations of stress hormones.
Healing Nervous System Dysregulation Long Term
In order to truly heal nervous system dysregulation, it requires more than just self-regulation techniques.
The capacity of the nervous system needs to be expanded.
While self-regulating the nervous system in the short term is a core part of the healing process, if the underlying cause(s) of dysregulation aren’t addressed, episodes of dysregulation will continue to persist.
A dysregulated nervous system, in many ways, is your body’s way of saying that you need to do some deeper healing, which will almost certainly involve lifestyle changes on one level.
This will undoubtedly include building up a repertoire of techniques and strategies to self-manage and self-regulate your nervous system in the short-term.
But depending on the nature of your dysregulation – the intensity and frequency – and how much it’s affecting your capacity to live a functional life, it may require additional support in the form of therapy.