When your nervous system is in overdrive, it can be difficult to focus and make decisions. Stress, fear, and other emotions can cause our body to react with fight or flight responses that make us feel overwhelmed and out of control. Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to help your nervous system calm down so you can regain a sense of balance, focus, and clarity. Let's dive in:
What is your “nervous system”
Simply put, your nervous system is the part of your body that helps you sense and react to any changes in your environment. It’s a collection of cells, nerves, and organs that help you take in information from your surrounding world, interpret it, and then send messages back out to muscles or other parts of the body so they can act accordingly.
When your nervous system has become “over-aroused” due to stress or anxiety, it can be difficult to relax. You may experience racing thoughts or feelings of panic or dread—symptoms associated with an anxious state.
Why our nervous systems get activated: evolution
Our nervous systems get activated when our environment or circumstances make us feel unsafe—this is an evolutionary trait that helps us to stay safe in the face of danger. In today’s world, it may be difficult for us to recognize when we are in danger because we aren’t always confronted with typical life-threatening situations. However, our minds and bodies can still respond as if we are.
Modern triggers that upset our nervous system
In this day and age, there are a lot of modern triggers that can upset our nervous systems. This might include things like feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do, stress from family or relationship problems, financial concerns, or even just an overload of information from technology. Here’s a few common modern triggers:
- Overstimulation of content on social media (see our post on media fatigue)
- Comparing ourselves to others on social media
- The news cycle
- Expectations to do it all and have it all
- Hustle culture and the pressure of doing more or not doing enough
- Socioeconomic and racial inequality and/or trauma
- Loud environments like restaurants and bars
- Hyper-connectedness to technology and overstimulation
What it feels like when our nervous systems are activated
Our bodies all respond to stress differently. Some people may experience physical symptoms, like a racing heart rate or tightness in their chest. Others may become overwhelmed or angry, and others may withdraw or feel frozen or paralyzed. No matter what your response is, it’s important to recognize when your nervous system has been activated so that you can take steps to regulate yourself. What symptoms do you tend to feel?
How to help calm down your nervous system
Once you are aware of the signals your body is sending out, there are a few strategies you can use to help calm down your nervous system:
- Take slow, deep breaths – deep breathing helps activate the body's relaxation response which can help reduce stress and anxiety.
- Practice mindfulness – being mindful means paying attention to the present moment without judgment. Try focusing on each breath as it enters and leaves your body and observe any physical sensations or thoughts without engaging with them. Try naming a few objects in the room with you and touch different surfaces to ground into the present moment.
- Move your body – going for a walk or doing some gentle stretching can help to alleviate feelings of stress and tension. Movement helps to release endorphins, which are the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Similarly, if your body tends to freeze when you’re activated, moving your body will tell your brain that you are safe. Loosen your joints by shaking out your arms and rolling your ankles in circles. Aim to move all your joints!
- Connect with nature – spending time in nature has been scientifically proven to reduce stress levels and promote relaxation. Whether it’s taking a walk in the park or sitting by a lake, give yourself permission to take some time out and enjoy the beauty of nature around you.
- Reach out for support – talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling and ask for their help if needed. It can be comforting to know that you don’t have to go it alone and can get help if needed.
- Engage in self care - pick a few self care habits that you find grounding like taking a shower or bath, reading a book, or making a cup of tea. These habits signal to your brain that you are safe and can ground you.
By using these strategies, you can help your nervous system calm down and regain a sense of balance, focus, and clarity. It may not be easy at first but with practice, you can effectively shift from feeling overwhelmed and anxious to grounded and centered.
Allow yourself the patience and understanding as you take this journey—it’s worth it!
Highly sensitive people and our nervous systems
Highly sensitive people's nervous systems are highly attuned to their environment and the emotions of others. This means that they are particularly sensitive to stress and anxiety, so it is even more important for them to take steps to regulate themselves when their nervous systems become activated. Make sure you give yourself permission to take a break if needed, connect with nature or reach out for support accordingly.
Simply understanding what’s going on in your body can alleviate the stress and confusion you might experience when your nervous system is activated. With the awareness of what is happening, we can remember that we have coping skills and put them into action.
One of the best remedies for an upset nervous system is simply self care. Engaging in any meaningful self care activity is your best bet to feeling safe and grounded.
We recommend making a list of things that tend to elevate your nervous system, like social media, caffeine, alcohol, or other stimuli. Even particular people, activities, or locations might upset your nervous system. Everyone is activated by different things, so take the time to notice what tends to make you feel ungrounded. Limiting your exposure can go a long way, and it's also possible to develop skills to better handle activating stimuli.
And keep in mind, an elevated nervous system is a natural and normal part of your body. We were designed to deal with acute stressors; we're just not designed to stay in an activated state perpetually. Your body is designed to come back to homeostasis, and that can make all the difference to remember when we're in an activated state.
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