6 Ways to Self-Regulate Your Nervous System According to a Holistic Chiropractor

Stress. It is a part of our lives whether we like it or not – especially in 2022. The pandemic is a constant black cloud over our heads. Dealing with this, on top of all the regular every day stresses that we have, like work deadlines, kids, housework and finding time for friends & loved ones, it’s no wonder that a lot of people feel like their stress levels have increased. We are all being pulled in so many directions and it is important to understand, and recognise, that all of these things are classed as a stress to our nervous system. Whilst our nervous system isn’t designed to be under constant stress, you can also use it to help manage our stress and anxiety if you know how!

The more “in balance” our nervous system is, the better it deals with day to day stress and life, which is what we all want, isn’t it?

To understand how you can use your nervous system to help manage and regulate stress you first need to know about the nervous system itself. It has two main parts – the central nervous system (CNS) made up of brain and spinal cord, and your peripheral nervous system (PNS) which is everything else including cranial nerves, spinal nerves and their roots and peripheral nerves.

The PNS communicates messages from the brain and the rest of the body. The PNS has two branches. The Somatic (carries information to and from the nervous system) and the Autonomic system which regulates involuntary functions such as breathing, heart rate and hormone secretion. The Autonomic System then has two parts as well. The sympathetic system “fight, flight or freeze” located in the vertebral column in the thoracic and upper lumbar region and the parasympathetic system “rest and digest” made of cranial and sacral nerves. With me so far?

All of these parts of your nervous system are meant to work in harmony or balance. It goes into a state of increased sympathetic control in times of stress so we can run away from the “tigers” in our lives (aka work deadlines, family stress, trying to do it all). Your heart rate increases, digestion slows, glucose (energy) is released, airways open, adrenaline is released, bladder contraction is inhibited and your pupils dilate. Which is great for a short period of time. But you then want your body to balance out into parasympathtic control. This means you are ready to rest and digest so to speak, to recover from the stress. Your ability to digest food well increases, bile is secreted, bladder contracts, heart rate slows and pupils constrict to name a few things that may occur at this time.

One thing to keep in mind is that your brain doesn’t understand the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, and will stay in fight and flight until the “threat” is perceived to have gone away, which means it can impact you for much longer than you think it can, especially if you are still thinking about it!

So, with that knowledge, we can use our nervous system to help deal with stress. Which basically means that you are helping to regulate your nervous system and its responses. The more “regulated” your nervous system is, the better you will deal with everyday stress – which is what we all want.

From what I see, so in my opinion, the majority of people are currently in a stressed state. So to regulate their nervous system it is best to stimulate and activate the parasympathetic system.

Here are my top 6 ways to do this!

Breathing techniques – An easy, free and simple way to help take your body back into sympathetic control. Take 5-10 minutes to stop and breathe, deep and slow. Try to spend a little longer on your exhale, than your inhale. I recommend setting a timer for how many minutes you want to do it for, so that you can focus on breathing with your eyes closed, rather than thinking about how long you have been doing it for.

Water – Jumping into cold water is ideal, and if done regularly has been shown to lower your “fight and flight” response. If you can’t do this, even just splash it on your face or use a spray bottle and spray your face and neck. Cold showers are great, and even taking a few minutes to drink some water and breathe can make a difference!

Exercise – We all know by now that exercise and movement can get good endorphins flowing which is good for both your body and mind.

Sleep – One of the most important aspects to self-regulating the nervous system, you should be aiming to sleep well for a wide range of reasons. Importantly, when you sleep, your body can recover and heal. This includes your nervous system! If you are sleep deprived your sympathetic nervous system activity increases. This is not what you want, if you are trying to decrease the impact of stress on your body and nervous system.

Get into nature – Even better, barefoot in nature! If you can’t do this then close your eyes and picture yourself in your happy place. Just like the nervous system doesn’t know the difference between a real and perceived threat, it also doesn’t know the difference between you really being in the middle of the bush, hiking, or camping with your family, vs. you just thinking about it. The positive and happy thoughts of somewhere with low stress, will help your nervous system get into that state.

Seek additional support – See a health care practitioner that is trained in the way the nervous system works (A Chiropractor is a great example of this as we spend years training!) and can work with you and your personal situation to put a plan in place to help your nervous system work the best it can!

Please remember that all these tips are general and not designed to replace individualized advice. If you have any questions please reach out, I would love to help you or point you to someone who can.

Written by Dr Aimee Brown – a Holistic Chiropractor, Personal Trainer, Ultramarathon Runner & Mother of three, based in Manning, Perth, who is passionate about the mind & body connection. Find out more about her work or get in touch with her here.

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