A cultural paradigm shift is happening in awareness of the mind–body connection.
Ordinary people are talking about nervous system regulation.
People are using “dysregulation” as a catchall to describe how they feel when they are not on top of their game or to explain the behavior of their children or partner.
What is so wonderful about this is the focus on the body. People are looking to the body to explain and relieve symptoms typically thought of as problems of the mind.
This cultural shift has powerful and positive implications for treatment, and we’ll elaborate on the benefits and uses of nervous system regulation in this article.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life and give you the tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students, or employees.
Understanding how our nervous system regulates itself in response to our experiences is key to making deliberate changes to our nervous system that improve our wellbeing.
An understanding of the mechanisms of nervous system regulation will help integrate mind–body techniques into practice with intention and impact. Let’s get into the physiology of nervous system regulation.
What is nervous system regulation, and why is it important?
Nervous system regulation is a cascade of physiological responses our nervous system makes to reduce heightened states of arousal and increase states of calmness during times of distress.
In practice, we often use the concept to describe downstream effects of changes in physiology on our behavior, social interactions, mental health, and learning.
In a dysregulated state, our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are imbalanced. We feel we are at our limit, and it affects our ability to problem-solve, make rational decisions, and engage positively with others.
Symptoms can be physical or emotional and include chronic pain, migraines, difficulty concentrating, agitation, moodiness, insomnia, sweating, nausea, indigestion, anxiety, and a racing heart (Elbers & Batista, 2018).
Knowing how to recognize dysregulation in our system and respond in an adaptive and protective way is a powerful wellness tool available to everyone.
Our nervous system controls every system in our body through complex communication and integration of electrochemical signals between the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system (InformedHealth.org, 2016).
Human nervous system from the inside
Check out this beautiful video illustration of the human nervous system.
Autonomic nervous system
To maintain health, our autonomic nervous system regulates our involuntary physiological processes, which include respiration, digestion, and immune function, in response to our experiences. This system is subdivided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These two systems work in tandem to maintain a balanced autonomic nervous system (Ondicova & Mravec, 2010).
In times of danger or stress, our sympathetic nervous system protects us by carrying signals that activate bodily processes to increase our arousal and alertness. The parasympathetic nervous system carries signals to deactivate these processes once the danger has passed, resulting in a state of calmness (McEwen, 2007).
Bringing balance to the system
We feel nervous system regulation when there is a balance between activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. We feel dysregulation when these systems are not working efficiently in response to our experiences. This dance between the two systems occurs all day, every day, over the course of our lives.
Although the physiological responses of the parasympathetic nervous system are involuntary, we can bring them under conscious awareness and use them to return to a calmer state.
Techniques for Nervous System Regulation
There are deliberate, self-directed techniques that can be used in real time to establish a more relaxed state and push back on the physiological responses generated by the sympathetic nervous system.
Before diving into techniques for nervous system regulation, we need to recognize what dysregulation feels like in our bodies. We do this through interoception.
Interoception is our conscious awareness of our internal bodily sensations like hunger, emotions, heart rate, and pain. Interoception gives us our general sense of what is going on in our body. It guides how we respond to our environment based on our perception of our bodily states (Quadt et al., 2018).
For example, recall how your body feels after a poor night’s sleep. How are your thinking and memory? How is your mood? Could you use this awareness to improve your sleep hygiene? The ability to recognize when you are experiencing dysregulation of your nervous system relies on interoception (Quadt et al., 2018).
Dysfunction to the interoception system is associated with a wide range of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders (Nord & Garfinkel, 2022; Chen et al., 2021).
Mind–body interventions, such as mindfulness and breathwork, that target interoceptive pathways to improve nervous system regulation show promise as safe and noninvasive therapeutic tools. These interventions have the potential to improve symptoms for a range of neurological, behavioral, and psychiatric disorders across several physiological systems (Weng et al., 2021).
Exploring Interoception: The neuroscience of internal body signals
This video describes interoception and its use in mental health therapy.
Mindfulness is one form of meditative practice. It is widely used as a tool to regulate our nervous systems to reduce stress, improve focus, and improve our sleep. But how does it work?
Potential neurobiological mechanisms
According to Hölzel et al. (2011), there are five potential neurobiological based mechanisms to explain the effects of mindfulness on wellbeing:
Attentional control – the ability to focus attention on a single object (typically an internal experience such as breath) and return to it when distracted
Body awareness – the ability to notice subtle differences in bodily sensation (i.e., interoceptive attention)
Reappraisal – the adaptive ability to reconstruct a stressful event as beneficial, benign or meaningful
Non-reactivity to inner experiences
Non-attachment – detached perspective of the self and acceptance of moment-by-moment nature of the self
Identification of the mechanisms behind mindfulness push us toward a common understanding of how mindfulness actually works. From here we can develop targeted mindfulness-based interventions to improve nervous system regulation for specific patient profiles.
Neuroscientist Jack Feldman says, “One breath can shift your brain state” (Huberman, 2022). Our nervous system controls breathing, and we can bring it to conscious awareness to regulate our parasympathetic response.
Our respiration modulates our heart rate and blood pressure, so when we inhale, our heart rate and blood pressure increase. When we exhale, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease. Because these systems are coupled in the nervous system, controlled breathwork has enormous potential for nervous system regulation.
Patterns of inhales and exhales that differ in intensity and duration impact our heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels in the blood. Current research supports the hypothesis of a causal relationship between the rhythm of our respiration and our perception of pain, stress reduction, and even memory retrieval (Ashhad et al., 2022).
1. Slow breathing
Slow-breathing techniques are defined as those using fewer than 10 breaths per minute (e.g., pranayama and paced breathwork). Slow breathing of fewer than six breaths per minute was related to increased heart rate variability, a sign of positive health and improved parasympathetic nervous system regulation (Zaccaro et al., 2018).
15 Mins Pranayama Practice
2. Box breathing
Box breathing, also called tactical breathing, is used by military and law enforcement to decrease physiological arousal during stressful and dangerous situations. Tactical breathing improves nervous system regulation by lowering heart rate and breathing rate (Röttger et al., 2021).
To practice the box breath technique, visualize a square box and use it to guide your breath with equal inhale, hold, and exhale ratios around the perimeter of the box.
Side 1 – Inhale for four counts.
Side 2 – Hold the breath for four counts.
Side 3 – Exhale for four counts.
Side 4 – Hold the breath for four counts.
3. Cyclic sighing
Cyclic sighing, also called the physiological sigh, is a double inhale followed by a slow exhale. It works immediately on our autonomic nervous system by decreasing respiration rate.
In a comparison study of four mind–body techniques, five minutes of cyclic sighing improved positive affect and decreased respiration rate better than five minutes of mindfulness meditation. Although both techniques involve the breath, it seems that controlling our breathing may improve wellbeing better than passively focusing on breathing (Balban et al., 2023).
Neuroscientist: Do this to calm down instantly
Watch Dr. Huberman demonstrate the physiological sigh in this video.
4. Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing (ANB) is a breathing technique from hatha yoga that uses controlled breathwork to improve nervous system regulation. Left-nostril breathing decreases blood pressure and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Right-nostril breathing brings blood pressure back to normal levels and activates the sympathetic nervous system.
ANB regulates our nervous system by decreasing heart rate and breathing rate and regulating our blood pressure (Kanorewala & Suryawanshi, 2022).
Alternate Nostril Breathing - Yoga Technique
Learn how to perform alternate nostril breathing with this video.
Yoga and exercise
Both yoga and exercise have profound effects on mental and physical health and encompass elements known to regulate the sympathetic response. Whereas yoga focuses on breath regulation, postures, relaxation, and meditation, exercise typically targets muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance.
Yoga influences the stress response generated by the sympathetic nervous system by reducing cortisol levels, improving immune response, lowering heart rate, and/or decreasing blood pressure. The beneficial effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system seem to be larger for clinical populations including individuals experiencing depression and anxiety, hypertension, and elevated blood glucose, as well as breast cancer survivors (Pascoe & Bauer, 2015).
Exercise plays a protective role in improving nervous system regulation in two ways: directly through improved metabolic functioning and indirectly by reducing allostatic load related to activation of the stress response.
Regular exercise is related to improved insulin resistance and decreased symptoms of metabolic disorder, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity. Better overall physical fitness is associated with a reduction in sympathetic responses to stress (Tsatsoulis & Fountoulakis, 2006).
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Sleep and Your Nervous System
Sleep is the very first place to start to regulate the nervous system. Sleep affects the functioning of every system in our body, including our nervous system. The stress–sleep cycle is a vicious one psychologically and physiologically. You have trouble falling asleep because you feel stressed. Your stress becomes more unmanageable because you can’t sleep.
The duration of sleep and the quality of sleep (e.g., frequent awakenings) influence and are influenced by our autonomic nervous system.
Sleep and mental health
Evidence suggests a bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health. Those who experience anxiety and depression often have chronic sleep problems. Those sleep problems can influence mood and emotional regulation, thereby exacerbating symptoms.
When we can improve sleep, we improve mental health. A meta-analysis of the effect of sleep interventions on mental health symptoms showed a causal relationship. Incremental improvements in sleep quality (e.g., sleep onset, sleep duration, awakenings) led to incremental improvements in mental health (Scott et al., 2021).
This dosing effect is important because interventions to improve sleep can easily be integrated into therapeutic practice.
The Impact of Stress on the Nervous System
Allostasis is the term for adaptive changes the body makes in response to changes in our environment, particularly psychological distress, illness, and injury.
Allostatic processes, such as the secretion of cortisol and increased heart rate and blood pressure, protect us and allow our body to maintain homeostasis.
But when allostatic processes are overused or used inefficiently, physiological dysregulation may occur. Allostatic load is a measure of this dysregulation and is described by Carbone (2021, p. 394) as “the cumulative, biological wear and tear due from long-term exposure to stress.”
The fight-or-flight response
Stressors can be emotional or physical, but the stress response is the same. When we experience a stressor, it activates stress hormones that produce physiological changes in the sympathetic nervous system.
The fight-or-flight response is an acute stress response. It prepares our body for a physical response to fight or to avoid the stressor. It is a protective mechanism designed to dissipate as danger passes. When the stress response continues without relief, it is no longer adaptive and can lead to chronic health conditions across the lifespan.
Chronic stress, also called toxic stress, is prolonged or frequent activation and dysregulation of the stress response. Chronic stress is not adaptive. It is associated with cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, cognitive decline, and mental health disorders including bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and anhedonia (Carbone, 2021).
Toxic stress is one mechanism by which childhood trauma and disadvantages such as poverty get “under the skin” and stay there to influence physical and mental health in adulthood (Evans, 2016). There is evidence that stress induced by adverse childhood experiences involves epigenetic modifications that turn our genes on and off without changing the DNA (Jiang et al., 2019).
Strategies for managing stress
The concept of allostatic load has significant implications for treatment and preventive care of mental health and wellbeing. Within this framework, the mind and body are understood as an integrated system.
In a conceptual review of the relationship between allostatic load and stress, McEwen (2005, p. 317) writes:
“The “mind” includes not only what goes on in the brain but also the visceral sensations, including pain, as well as inflammatory states and many other processes that take place throughout the body. These components influence mood, attention and arousal and have effects on cognitive function.”
Interventions such as mindfulness and deep breathing manipulate mind–body interactions and may lead to improvement in sympathetic function. The ability to regulate our nervous system with self-directed, real-time, deliberate techniques is a powerful tool to improve the efficiency of our body to respond to stressors in everyday life.
Supplements and Diet
Diet and stress are bidirectionally related. Changes in mood because of stress can affect how much we eat. Overeating or not eating enough can increase stress-related mental health symptoms.
Diets high in fat are related to mood disorders. A Mediterranean diet with a high intake of vegetables, whole grains, and healthy oil has been shown to reduce the risk of depression (Bremner et al., 2020).
Often when we feel stressed, we experience gastrointestinal symptoms. Our gut communicates with our brain through our vagus nerve. These messages can be affected by the bacteria in the gut, called the gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome is related to positive mental health.
Eating foods high in whole grains, lean meats, and vegetables contributes to a healthy gut microbiome. Pre- and probiotic supplements can also improve gut health.
For tools to improve your gut microbiome health, read this article from the Huberman Lab.
Helpful Resources From PositivePsychology.com
Mind–body techniques to improve nervous system regulation are flexible and can be incorporated into existing yoga, mental health, and coaching practices. Check out these resources from PositivePsychology.com to get started.
These three articles will get you started with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness, and breathwork.
It is unbelievable how valuable documentation of your sleep habits is. Use this Two-Week Sleep Diary to identify patterns throughout the week that may contribute to getting high-quality sleep.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enjoy the benefits of mindfulness, check out this collection of 17 validated mindfulness tools for practitioners. Use them to help others reduce stress and create positive shifts in their mental, physical, and emotional health.
A Take-Home Message
In this article, we focused primarily on the physiological changes in the autonomic nervous system. However, the central nervous system and the endocrine system play an equal role in nervous system regulation and ultimately lifelong mental and physical wellness.
The complexity of our nervous system and its effect on behavior, affect, cognition, and lifelong health cannot be understated.
Neuroscientific research on mind–body interaction is moving at a rapid pace to identify mechanisms of nervous system regulation on health outcomes. With this progress will come exciting preventive measures and novel interventions.
We encourage you to keep an eye on these developments and be at the forefront of nervous system regulation techniques to help your clients enjoy the balance of a functional nervous system.
There is one nervous system. It is divided into the central nervous system, which is the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which includes nerve connections from the brain and spinal cord to the body.
How do you know if your nervous system is dysregulated?
Signs that your nervous system may be in a dysregulated state can include (Elbers & Batista, 2018):
Physiological symptoms such as frequent illness and muscle tension
Emotional symptoms such as uncontrolled temper and feeling overwhelmed
Cognitive symptoms such as difficulty problem-solving and concentrating
Sensitivity to sensory input such as loud noises and bright lights
How can I reset my nervous system naturally?
You can reset your nervous system naturally with regular exercise, listening to calming music, positive social connections, physical touch, experiencing the awe of nature, and play.
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About the author
Jessica is a developmental scientist with a background in neurocognitive research and sociocultural theory. As co-founder of The Urban Chalkboard Play Cafe in Indiana, her applied work focuses on the cognitive, social, and mental health benefits of children's play.