May 13, 2024

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Stress Less

photo of Allie Baker

Written By

Allie Baker

photo of Vanessa Clark, PA-C, RDN

Medically Reviewed By

Vanessa Clark, PA-C, RDN

Lifeforce Physician Assistant

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Stress Less

Ninety percent of Americans believe the country is experiencing a mental health crisis, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation. A third of all adults said they feel anxious always or often. And another survey found that 36% of people don’t even know where to begin when it comes to managing their stress. 

One place to start: understanding the nervous system and how it impacts mental health and anxiety. We can’t stress this enough — the way your body processes stress often comes down to nervous system regulation. 

“Mental health and the nervous system are intimately linked,” says Lifeforce Clinician Vanessa Clark, PA-C, RDN. “What we perceive as our state of mind or mental health is oftentimes the product of a complex mix of things that originate in the nervous system.”

You likely already feel these effects in your everyday life. “The symbiotic relationship of the nervous system and mental health is tangible for anyone who’s ever experienced trauma, anxiety, stress, lack of sleep, or even discord at work or home,” says Lifeforce Health Coach Sara Ramirez. “Our nervous system is the direct input for our brains to receive stimuli from the outside world. If that stimulus stays present within us, say from mental stress, how does this

play a role in the way that translates across our physiological responses?”

That’s exactly the question we’re going to tackle. Our experts break down everything you need to know about the nervous system — what it is, how it works, and how it affects your mental and physical health. Plus, we share tangible tips to regulate your nervous system so you can stress less and enjoy life more.

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Stress Less: Nervous System 101

Nervous System 101

Whether you’re aware of it or not, your nervous system is often calling the shots. “Our nervous system is the command center of our bodies,” Clark says. “It’s responsible for the inputs and outputs of our body, meaning it both perceives and reacts to the world happening around us.”

The nervous system is made up of two basic parts: the central and peripheral systems. The central nervous system comprises the brain and spinal cord, Clark explains. The peripheral nervous system encompasses neurons that branch off the spinal cord and form networks that extend throughout the body. Some neurons provide sensory input back to the brain, while others carry motor impulses from the brain or spinal cord out to our muscles. 

A portion of these neurons function automatically without conscious effort, Clark says. For example, you don’t need to remember to breathe or ask your heart to beat — your body takes care of that for you. Those functions are part of your autonomic nervous system. On the other hand, actions that you control — think: taking a step or reaching for a glass of water — are thanks to your somatic nervous system. 

Clark says, “This difference is important when thinking about mental health because we have to keep in mind that we are not always in control of our perceptions of events or of the physical response that those events trigger.”  

Fight or Flight Mode

Breaking it down even further, the autonomic nervous system (the automatic one) is made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. How can you tell the difference? 

“I like to think of the sympathetic system as being ‘sympathetic to getting chased by a tiger,’” Clark says. “This is the system that turns on when we perceive a threat.” In other words, it activates the “fight or flight” response. 

“The sympathetic nervous system is essentially the part of our brain associated with trying to preserve our survival, so it’s an evolutionary, adaptive, and biological mechanism,” says Dr. Judy Ho, ​​Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN, clinical and forensic neuropsychologist and author of The New Rules of Attachment. “When your body and mind perceive a potentially harmful event, they release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which prepares the body to either confront the threat (fight) or flee from it (flight).”

This can manifest as an increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, dilated pupils, rapid breathing, and redirection of blood flow to your muscles, Dr. Ho explains. “The goal is to enhance your physical performance.” Which comes in handy if, say, a tiger is chasing you. 

No tiger in sight? The sympathetic nervous system can still get its claws in you. “As we have developed as a species, and now most of us are not in physical danger most days, the sympathetic system also learned to switch on for any kind of emotional or psychological danger.”

The problem is that this system wasn’t designed for our current, high-stress world, Clark says. 

“For certain people, this brain pathway is more easily activated by incoming stimuli. For example, take any number of stressful situations — going through a divorce, getting into an argument with a friend, receiving criticism at work, or getting stuck in a traffic jam. Some people are able to experience these things without a significant effect on their functioning. But for other people, this is a metaphorical tiger, meaning our body literally perceives these events as life threatening and enacts a fight or flight response courtesy of our sympathetic nervous system — sometimes not just once but repeatedly or chronically.”

When you’re chronically in ‘fight or flight’ mode, it can exhaust your body and mind’s resources, leading to brain fog, difficulty problem solving, sleep troubles, impulsive decision making, and unhealthy lifestyle habits like a poor diet or lack of exercise, Dr. Ho explains. Continual release of stress hormones can also contribute to conditions like chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, and cardiovascular disease risk. One study found that having a dysregulated nervous system may be a predictor of high cholesterol and metabolic syndrome.

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Stress Less: Rest and Digest

Rest and Digest Mode

The good news is that there’s another system to balance this out — the parasympathetic nervous system. “After the ‘tiger chase’ — or any anxiety-inducing event — the parasympathetic nervous system is the one that kicks in when we are in a state of ‘rest and digest,’” Clark says. “This is the side that helps us to relax after a stressful stimulus. It helps to slow our breathing and heart rate, and allows our body to go back to other involuntary tasks like digesting the sandwich you had for lunch.”

The goal is striking a healthy harmony between ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’ modes. When that balance is disrupted, it leads to nervous system dysregulation — which has become a buzzword on social media and in the wellness world lately. 

“Most symptoms of dysregulation present emotionally, such as depression, anxiety,

overreactions, or irritability, but in about 7% of the population, these symptoms manifest in the body and can look like pain, fatigue, and stomach issues,” Ramirez says. “We hear a lot about the mind-body connection. That can look different for everyone, so it’s important to learn

mindfulness practices to be in tune with your own responses.”

Try these tangible tips to calm the nervous system in stressful moments and build resilience over time. 

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Reduce Stress

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Stress Less: Value Your Vagus Nerve

1. Value Your Vagus Nerve

You may have seen exercises online to ‘tone your vagus nerve’ or ‘improve your vagal tone.’ Here’s why it’s a nerve to know. “The vagus nerve originates in the brainstem, extends down the spinal cord, and has branches going directly into most of our vital organs — heart, lungs, stomach, digestive tract, liver, kidneys, bladder, and even genitals,” Clark says. “Stimulating the vagus nerve helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, so knowing a few ways to do this adds tools to your toolkit to use in times of stress, anxiety, low mood, or panic.”

According to Dr. Ho, a simple practice to stimulate the vagus nerve is to place your fingertips toward the back of your neck, where it originates, and make an elongated “voo” sound, bringing attention to the vibrations this causes in your fingertips.

“Laughing and singing can also stimulate the vagus nerve, so consider putting on a funny podcast or a favorite song and belting it out,” Clark says. 

Both Dr. Ho and Clark recommend chilly water to chill out. “Exposure to cold water can help activate the vagus nerve and increase blood flow to the brain,” Clark says.”In the morning, try ending a shower with cold water, starting with 30 to 45 seconds and building up to a couple of minutes.” Dr. Ho also suggests splashing cold water on your face or putting ice on the back of your neck in stressful situations. 

Also consider this a sign to schedule a spa day. “Touch helps stimulate the vagus nerve and puts us deeper into a state of rest and calm, so go ahead and book that full body massage — doctor’s orders!” Clark says. “Avoid very firm or deep tissue massages and instead ask for more gentle pressure.”

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Stress Less: Meditate

2. Meditate 

“Setting aside time for meditation on a regular basis may improve not only your mental health, but also the underlying structure of your brain,” Clark says. “Some studies have shown changes in both brain structure and brain wave emissions in people who meditate regularly. Meditation may have the biggest impact on symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, but since there is really no down side to meditating, there is no harm in trying meditation to help any of the symptoms associated with nervous system dysregulation.”

If you're new to meditation, start small. Clark suggests just five minutes daily or a few times a week. “In a world oversaturated with alerts and attention interrupters, it can take time to get used to sitting with just our thoughts,” she says. “Consider using an app for guided meditations or just focusing on your breathing while repeating a meaningful phrase over and over.”

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Stress Less: Breathe Deep

3. Breathe Deep

While we’re talking about breath, there’s a breadth of evidence that deep breathing techniques can help regulate your nervous system. 

“Deep breathing is essentially an antithesis to your sympathetic nervous system activating because the message you're sending your nervous system is, ‘There's nothing going on here,’” Dr. Ho says. “If there's a true threat that actually involves the ‘fight or flight’ system, you'd have to spring into action so quickly that you wouldn’t have the luxury to breathe. Even the fact that you can breathe deep is already telling your body that you’re OK.” 

Both Dr. Ho and Ramirez recommend the box breathing technique: 

  • Step 1: Breathe in, counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.

  • Step 2: Hold your breath for 4 seconds. 

  • Step 3: Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.

  • Step 4: Repeat until you feel calm and centered. 

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Stress Less: Move Your Body

4. Move Your Body

“I know it’s been said so many times, but movement really is key to keeping so many health systems in balance,” Ramirez says. Research finds that exercise can activate the vagus nerve to support the ‘rest and digest’ system. Movement has also been shown to help with symptoms of anxiety and depression

“You don’t have to ‘go hard, or go home’ with it,” Ramirez says. “Take the dog for a walk in the morning and get sunlight before you get blue light. Do gentle stretches or yoga during the day if you usually sit at a desk to keep your blood circulating. I even have timers on my phone to remind me to relax my shoulders and drop the tension in my jaw sitting in front of a computer all day. It’s really important to let your body know it’s safe to relax and, in fact, it needs to.”

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Stress Less: Scan Your Body

5. Scan Your Body 

Another simple tool in your nervous system toolkit can be a body scan. “It’s one of my favorite quick exercises that you can do anywhere, anytime,” Dr. Ho says. 

Here’s how it works: Begin lying down, sitting, or standing. Starting at your head and working your way down to your toes, bring attention to each specific part of your body. Notice any particular area where you’re holding tension. Focus on that area, tense it even more for five seconds, and then completely release that tension with an exhale. 

“Try it once a day or just when you're feeling particularly stressed,” Dr. Ho suggests. “It’s a great way to relax very quickly and become more in tune with your body and how it holds emotions.” 

6 Strategies to Regulate Your Nervous System and Stress Less: Tap into Tapping

6. Tap Into Tapping 

The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is a sensory mind/body treatment where you tap on various median points throughout the body while thinking about a specific situation or issue. 

“Stimulating these points is meant to connect the body with the part of the brain that controls and processes stress,” Clark explains. “The goal is to reduce the amount of psychological distress that comes from the particular issue by processing the problem in a calm and controlled environment while activating the sensory part of your nervous system and trying to modify the way that your brain then interprets that input.”

EFT has been shown to help with symptoms of anxiety and depression. According to Clark, it can also help produce physiological changes associated with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, including a reduction of resting heart rate and blood pressure and decreased cortisol levels. 

Overall, caring for your holistic health will nurture your nervous system. “Many of the pillars of lifestyle medicine — including whole foods-based nutrition, frequent movement, improved sleep, and developing a strong social network — support our nervous system and mental health,” Clark says. Don’t feel pressure to make a lot of changes at once. “Decide which areas will make the biggest difference for your health and start there.” 

This article was medically reviewed by Vanessa Clark, PA-C, RDN.

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