Whether it’s waiting for a first date at the bar, walking into a big job interview, or initiating a difficult conversation, at some point you’ve probably found your heart pounding so relentlessly in your chest that you start to wonder if you accidentally swallowed a small woodpecker on your evening walk.
These tense moments will punctuate our lifetimes, and there’s not much we can do to about it. In fact, it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious or stressed from time to time in response to relevant situations.
However, experiencing stress in a disproportionate manner is a sign that your nervous system is dysregulated. Regularly experiencing fatigue, anxiety, depression, brain fog, gastrointestinal issues, and/or unstable energy levels suggests that you could be functioning in a state of chronic ‘fight or flight’.
The good news? By understanding the physiology behind this state, we can reprogram our brains and bodies and regulate our nervous systems to more calmly respond to the demands of daily life.
How does nervous system regulation work?
Chronic stress is the result of a nervous system stuck in fight or flight (or the lesser known ‘freeze’ or ‘fawn’) mode. What does this mean?
Your body enters fight or flight mode in response to situations of threat. Evolutionarily, this might have been a predator rustling in the bushes, but these days it’s more like a scary boss or a caregiver whose affection is unreliable. Your body logs these situations as dangerous so that alarm bells go off if you experience something similar in the future.
This mechanism was vital when the threat at hand genuinely meant life or death, but in most modern day scenarios, running a program in the present that was designed to fight a past threat can have detrimental consequences.
Suddenly, you’ll find yourself in a situation that’s realistically totally safe, but since it reminds you of a past experience encoded in your nervous system as dangerous, your heart rate soars, your body tenses, you start sweating and maybe even completely freeze. You experience overwhelming anxiety even though rationally you’re aware that this is a different situation and there’s no need to be scared.
If your first boss always criticised your work, you might feel constant stress at your new job, even though this manager is friendly and values your contributions.
If you had an unpredictable parent who’d lash out over small mistakes, you might feel afraid of your partner and over-apologise every time you slip up, even though they’re gentle and understanding.
You’re not doomed to live on the defence, though. With consistent practice, you can self-regulate your nervous system. Instead of operating from the branch that triggers fight or flight, known as the sympathetic nervous system, you can train yourself to respond from its ‘rest and digest’ counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system.
Six easy ways to regulate your nervous system and feel more calm
You’re probably more familiar with nervous system regulation than you think. All that yoga, breathwork and meditation people keep suggesting? It’s not a mystical cure for depression or anxiety — it’s self-regulation.
But if contorting yourself into a pretzel isn’t your cup of tea, fear not. There are plenty of other ways to regulate your nervous system that often go unmentioned.
When you enter fight or flight mode, all your mental energy is being channelled to just one area of your brain, the amygdala, designed to keep you alive and safe in situations of threat. As a result, the lower right hemisphere of your brain experiences an excess of brainwave frequencies.
By simply redirecting some of your focus and redistributing the energy, you can get your brain to calm down.
Grab an object and move it slowly from side to side, following it with your eyes. Alternatively, search on YouTube for ASMR (Autonomic Sensory Meridian Response videos involving hand movements or following lights. This redirects the nervous energy and stimulates both sides of your brain.
Many people find this so calming that they fall asleep, making it a great solution for anxiety-induced insomnia, too.
One of the best ways to keep your nervous system well-oiled is to regulate your circadian rhythm, aka your body’s sleep/wake cycle. Aside from the usual advice — go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, stow your phone away a few hours before sleep, etc — try getting some sunlight exposure first thing in the morning.
This signals that it’s time to kick into ‘awake mode and keeps your nervous system functioning reliably.
Morning sunlight exposure also encourages deeper sleep, and the better your sleep, the less on edge your nervous system will be throughout the day.
Every nerve in your body is protected by a coating called the myelin sheath. Deteriorated myelin sheaths have been linked to neurological imbalances like Alzheimer’s.
Even when not so extreme, worn out sheaths can impact the general functioning and wellbeing of your nervous system.
You can help your nerves stay healthy by ensuring you meet your required intake of B vitamins. Folate, specifically, protects nerves from chemicals that can cause damage.
To up your folate intake, try incorporating more spinach, pomegranates and beets into your diet.
Additionally, vitamins B1, B6 and B12 help with the synthesis of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which play a key role in nervous system function and keeping depression and anxiety at bay.
Cold water exposure
One way to teach your body to feel safe in a wider range of stressful situations is through cold exposure. Cold activates our fight or flight mode, and when we consciously teach our bodies to relax into (safe) moments of discomfort, we widen our window of tolerance and make our nervous systems more resilient.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to subject yourself to the torture of cold showers on a daily basis to reap the benefits. Start where you feel comfortable, whether that’s holding your hands in iced water, or being brave and submerging your face.
Tensing your jaw is one of the most primal fighting instincts, and many of us still do it out of stress subconsciously.
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation — sometimes you brace your jaw due to stress, but chronic stress can make it second nature causing you to clench your jaw randomly throughout the day. This signals to your body that you’re in fight mode and can heighten your feelings of stress for no reason.
By becoming more aware and consciously dropping your jaw, you tell your nervous system that you’re not under threat and it’s safe to relax.
A particularly good time to practice this is when falling asleep. Try sleeping with your head tilted slightly back to relieve pressure in your jaw, and you might just find your sleep quality improving, too.
The wellbeing of your nervous system relies on some sense of predictability, since unexpected situations trigger your fight or flight response.
Being plugged into social media with no boundaries leaves your nervous system open to external influences constantly, whether that’s a notification from your ex or a distressing piece of news.
By consciously choosing when to check your notifications or consume specific types of content, you prevent your nervous system from being thrown off by these outside influences at any given moment.
Try turning off notifications so that it becomes a choice to view who likes your posts.
Consider unfollowing or muting any accounts that drain your energy, whether that’s people you’re jealous of or depressing news accounts. If you want to tune into this content, at least it will be your choice at an appropriate moment.
Taking matters into your own hands can be incredibly empowering when it comes to managing chronic stress and anxiety.
Still, try to remember that your life is not a giant self-improvement project. Do your best to implement these practices in ways that are fruitful for you and don’t be too hard on yourself when you experience the difficulties of existence.
You’re human — the ups and downs are part of the experience.
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