Manage stress? Learn to self-regulate your nervous system

27. July 2022

As a highly-sensitive person (HSP), I’m used to feeling overstimulated or stressed quiet easily. My nervous system is wired in a way that I process things more deeply than the average person. This trait brings me amazing things and also challenges. For years I have been researching and exploring how to avoid the typical HSP trap of going from one over-exhausted phase to another due to not taking care enough of my nervous system.

Learning about the nervous system is relevant for everyone though – and if you have good body awareness you know that during the day we switch between different stimulation levels. Your stress level is 100% reflected in your nervous system, or to put it in simple words: in your body. Feeling highly stressed shows as shallow breath, overwhelming thoughts or emotions, tunnel view, high heart rate, tensed muscles and often impulsive/ reactive behavior.

Stress means that your body is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline (the latter wears off, but cortisol stays and does its damage). It can have terrific effects on our health if we are stuck in chronic stress, from chronically tensed muscles to inflammation in the body and visible brain matter shrinkage (of the frontal cortex, our decision-centre) in the long run.

Why? Chronic stress means that our “fight-or-flight”-mode / sympathetic part of our nervous system is constantly dominant. We are not enough in the “rest-and-digest”-mode, the counterpart referred to as parasympathetic nervous system. Our bodies always seek balance, the daily huge amount of stimulation and information however keeps most of us trapped in “sympathetic overdrive” – meaning most of us live with too much stress, and too few relaxation.

Managing stress = managing the nervous system

Have you ever tried to lower your tension level by “telling yourself to relax”? Just like telling another person to calm down in a fight, it likely won’t work. We can’t solve stress on the mental level. We need to do it via our body.

Here’s 3 tips how to calm down your nervous system and lower your stress response:

1) Work with the breath
The breath is managed by the same part of the nervous system that heightens or lowers the stress response in our bodies. The breath always mirrors our mental state. When we sleep, the breath is slow and deep, and it’s shallow when we’re anxious. If we want to relax, we need to breath as if we are that already. A well-researched breathing technique is the physiological sigh: double inhale + long exhale through the nose. Even simpler, just taking a few deep breaths in and out induces the “rest-and-digest”-mode.

2) Take true breaks
A study done by Microsoft’s Human Research Lab was able to prove the importance of real breaks. During the day, based on our level of stimulation, we go through different levels of brain waves. Simply out, beta-waves represent stress, alpha-waves relaxation. We often are in beta during day, but want to come back to alpha to avoid burn-out.

When we scroll through our phone or read emails during a break, we stay in beta-waves, aka our brain can’t reset. True breaks are the ones really calming us down. This includes closing our eyes, meditate, stretch, or walk for 5-10 min every day.

This overview by Microsoft shows how powerful it can be to take true breaks during a day full of meetings:

3) Intentionally activate the sympathetic nervous system in low dosage

While in general we want to reduce “fight-or-flight”-activation, there are techniques that put our bodies into a state of heightened stress on purpose, to over time build mental resilience. Those methods are often referred to as hormetic training. We expose ourselves to something that would harm/kill us on the long run, like holding the breath, hyperventilate, ice-cold water baths, or fasting. In small doses it makes our immune systems stronger. Next to the mentioned disciplines, intense workouts or sauna visits are recommended. Even though it doesn’t fall into the category of being potentially life-threatening on a “larger dose”, meditation has the same effect as hormetic training, boosting the immune system.

To sum it up, to self-regulate your nervous system, make sure to:

– take deep conscious breaths or perform the physiological sigh every once in a while
– take 5-10 minutes of true breaks during the day between meetings
– establish a hormetic routine once a week, by showering cold, meditating or going to the sauna.

I hope this was helpful for you.

Which self-regulation are your already using or want to establish for yourself? Let me know in the comments ­čĄŹ