How to regulate a dysregulated nervous system is what this post is all about.
The other day in my live Q&A for my members, I was asked, “How can I get regulated again after getting dysregulated?” In this post, I’ll show you how.
Nervous System Regulation After Dysregulation
What I assume that the person means is that they want to get back to the safe and social state of the nervous system, the parasympathetic response where you feel relaxed and calm and can think clearly.
I’m going to assume that you already know a little about the nervous system – you understand the fight/flight freeze response, and about the shutdown response (if not, check out my video on the three states of the nervous system). Because if you’re asking about dysregulation, you understand that we can’t just think our way into changing our nervous system. You know about using the powerful tool of the body to regulate the mind and nervous system. You already know about how to use body-based skills like deep breathing, the yawn, body scan, mindfulness. (if you don’t, take my free grounding skills course).
Like right now – take a really slow breath, make a big yawn. Gently tap your face.
And I’m assuming that you know about the skills to slow things down. That you’ve already tried writing about it, going for a walk or exercising, and talking with a safe and understanding person.
So I’m going to assume that you’ve tried all these things, and that it’s not working. These skills work the majority of the time, but not always. So let’s talk about what to do when these aren’t working. I love doing this work. Let’s troubleshoot together, shall we?
There are at least three reasons why you’re having a hard time regulating your nervous system, despite your best efforts. So let’s explore them and their antidotes.
Polyvagal Approach To Regulate Your Nervous System
OK, so Number One: Your nervous system is like a muscle. When you’re chronically in dysregulation, when you’re chronically in a sympathetic state, your sympathetic “muscle” gets stronger. If you experienced trauma 20 years ago and you’ve been anxious for 20 years, it’s like you’ve spent 20 years exercising that anxious muscle, and the calm, safe, parasympathetic muscle has atrophied. (1) So it might just take a little practice to strengthen your ability to regulate your nervous system.
Practice a few more minutes each day. If you go from being in the para state 1% each day to 2% each day, that’s progress.
Set a goal to practice these skills for 10 minutes a day if you can handle that. If that’s too hard, do it 5 minutes or 2 minutes. Use Insight Timer app to get prompts to soothe yourself. Use a system. Create a habit. Use a habit tracker, like my free download or an app like Habit.
When it feels disheartening to learn that trauma changes the brain, remember that healing changes the brain too.
Number Two: You’re not safe. And what I mean by that is that some action needs to be taken. Our nervous system is super smart and super good at bypassing the logical part of our brain to alert us to dangers. Sometimes anxiety isn’t a disorder; it’s just a message that something needs to change.
I recently got an email from a woman who had been diagnosed with a half-dozen disorders over 25 years – anxiety, depression, psychosis, bipolar, panic disorder, borderline personality – and when she finally left her abusive husband, most of those symptoms went away. The problem wasn’t a mental disorder; it was a situation that needed changing.
Sometimes action needs to be taken, and your body is going to keep sending that message until you get it. Are you stuck in the FFF response because you never say no to assignments at work? Because you believe you’re worthless? Because you feel like you have to please everyone else? Because you’re staying in a toxic relationship and need to set boundaries?
Emotions aren’t just bad things that happen to us; they’re meant to motivate us to take action. Sometimes they lie and we need to calm ourselves down, just regulate our bodies, but sometimes they’re truthful and we need to take action.
Number Three: You’re forcing it. You’re trying to practice willingness in a secret attempt to make your feelings go away. You’re practicing deep breathing in an attempt to force yourself and your body to calm down.
I talk about this cycle in my three videos that I made about panic attacks.
The main idea is when you have a physiological sensation and you say, “It’s not acceptable for me to feel dysregulated. I’m not okay with feeling stressed. It’s not okay for me to have a fast heart rate. This is dangerous, if I’m breathing fast, I have to make my breathing slow down,” then you’re sending that message to your brain that you’re in danger, that these sensations are dangerous.
And if you send the message to your brain of, “I can’t handle feeling this way”, that accentuates that cycle of being dysregulated. So you feel stressed and then you beat yourself up for feeling stressed. That makes you more stressed.
The antidote to this is to allow yourself to feel. Let yourself be uncomfortable, uncertain, vulnerable. Let yourself stand where you’re standing, be where you’re at. It doesn’t mean you’ll be there forever, but you have to start with where you’re at.
True willingness to feel your emotions means that your default setting is to use acceptance as a launching point for change, not the other way around, not saying, “After I change, then I can allow myself to feel.”
People have a tendency when things are painful to try to speed up to make it pass faster, but with emotions trying to hurry actually prevents you from doing the one thing that does work – slowing down and sitting with them. (2)
So just to summarize: if the problem is that you just need to build up your parasympathetic “muscle,” set a goal to practice body-based nervous system regulation a few extra minutes a day.
If there’s actually a problem that needs to be resolved, take some action.
And if you’re forcing it, it’s time to give yourself just a ton of compassion around being dysregulated. Slow down and create some space for you to feel what you feel without trying to force it to go away.
With practice and the right approach you really can unlock your nervous system, strengthen your parasympathetic response, and foster a greater sense of safety and calm.