As we are moving into a brand new year our wish for calm hearts and regulated nervous systems is stronger than ever. Who knows about the many new and exciting things 2024 has in the cards for us – whatever it is, we want to be ready and up for it, in all the good ways possible.
The word 'nervous system regulation' has been moving through the ether for many months, even years now, thanks to names such as Dr. Gabor Mate, Dr. Stephen Porges, Deb Dana, Dr. Richard Schwartz and many many more. And rightly so.
Our nervous systems are impressive little control stations within our complex human bodies that greatly influence the ways we perceive and meet the world, but also how our presence influences others and contributes to harmony and calm in an often hectic world.
Our nervous system
The nervous system is the foundation of our lived experience, it is the main “receiving and sending station” on how we connect with our environment, our body and mind, how we regulate our emotional and mental state, our immune systems, and every other body system.
Our underlying physiological state shifts our perspective on how we see and experience the world. Both our experience navigating the world, but also our experience with others.
A body that is in a calm, so-called neural vagal regulated state of our nervous system sees the world more positively than a body in a state of mobilisation (fight or flight) which will view at everything from a lense of negativity.
What is nervous system regulation and why does a regulated nervous system matter?
In simple words, nervous system regulation is the ability to move between different states of arousal and awareness in response to what surrounds us. When our environment changes we actually have the ability to adapt to change (which can potentially be stressful) without getting overwhelmed or activated. This adaptability also includes our ability to completely recover after the stressor or stimuli has been removed.
“This ability to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances gives us a sense of agency; it makes us feel confident and secure because we can understand and navigate the world in the ways we choose. When our nervous system is regulated, being in our bodies fosters a sense of safety.” (www.healyournervoussystem.com)
Whether we know it or not – we cannot be in communication with another human being without being in communication with their nervous system. Our nervous systems talk to each other. Which means: the impact we as individuals have on our immediate surroundings is of utter importance and has become of great relevance to understand. It is in its own way a superpower.
There is a responsibility that each and every one of us holds once we come into interaction with our environment. The sad truth is, that most humans are not aware of the effect they have on one another. In order to break these cycles of perpetuation it is important to facilitate ways to meet ourselves in our regulated and safe spaces.
A dysregulated nervous system
...triggers us into a stress response. Stress responses lead our brains to losing its capacity to take on different perspectives of one and the same situation.
Our ability to stay calm and regulated becomes limited, as we are triggered into our own hyperconnectivity loop from past trauma. We lose our capacity for self-regulation. We loose our ability to error-check. To take perspective. To imagine. To be empathetic. To test our reality – is the story I am telling myself really true? And so the othering begins. The potential dehumanisation of others. The judging. Because the brain has lost ability to discern.
The meaning and importance of co-regulation
“…you're always having a conversation with another nervous system. You just don't always recognize it.” - Deb Dana
We are pack animals, and we aren’t meant to live in isolation. We find proof of this in ancient cultures, indigenous tribes – overall, in the continuity within the history of humanity.
Co-regulation is the mutual influence or synchronization of the nervous systems of humans interacting with one another.
Our brains have the ability to configure and reconfigure themselves constantly. A flexible mind allows for empathy, for imagination of a future that is different from the present. That's important, now more than ever, don't you agree?
Co-regulation is the human's special superpower. Our greatest ability is to co-regulate with other human brains without the use of words. There is great power in understanding how to regulate ourselves and knowing that this is how we can regulate peace and calm with others.
Co-regulation is essential for survival. When we come into the world, our nervous system has a built- in expectation that it will be met and cared for in a regulated way, a safe base to come back to, e.g. a mother, or as an adult that may even be a pet.
When working on our own nervous system regulation we can reshape our system which means to simply have these common, everyday experiences of being in connection with another human being in a safe and regulated way.
How to work with our nervous system
All nervous system work begins with creating awareness: what happens in my body right this moment in time? What bodily sensations do I feel? What emotions can I pinpoint and name?
“In the Polyvagal world, trauma recovery or resolution, or whatever we're going to call it, working with trauma is really about bringing flexibility back to the nervous system. It's about helping [individuals] to be able to anchor in regulation. Both with somebody else and on their own and understand when they get pulled out of that regulation and have pathways to find their way home to regulation.” – Deb Dana
According to American neuroscientist and psychologist (who is also the the author of Polyvagal theory) Dr. Stephen Porges neural exercises that turn the neural ventral vagus on and off are training our muscle to resilience. Through these practices we are able to access and regulate our bodily state by getting more of the vagal influence into our organs. These practices can include e.g. deep and slow breathing, dancing as movement with facial interaction, play as social interaction (e.g. amongst children), music making, such as singing, chanting, playing a wind instrument.
Ways to regulate the nervous system
1. Slow and deep breaths
Deep breaths help to restore control to the parasympathetic nervous system and send signals to the brain that no emergency is happening. Breathing patterns such as box breath (equal in and out breaths on the same count of 4) or bee breath (breathing and humming at the same time while closing off eyes, ears and nose) instils a sense of calm in our system.
2. Bilateral stimulation
When we stimulate both sides of the brain, we are redirecting the energy that is perceived as intense. For this exercise grab an object, whether that’s a coffee cup, a phone, a note pad and move the object from side to side as you follow it with your eyes. What happens is a redirection of the nervous energy and an activation of both sides of the brain.
3. Take your time
When you experience something (an event, conversation, etc.) there is an initial biochemical and electrical surge that lasts 30 to 90 seconds when your unconscious and conscious mind is adjusting and processing the incoming information. This is when we tend to react impulsively. Instead of responding right away, practice the 30-90 second rule to help reinstate neurophysiological calm in the brain and body. You do this by following these steps within the next 60-90sec:
a. Breathe in deeply with your ribcage expanding, and focus on a strong exhale (3-5x).
b. If possible, create some mental space by going into another room or a restroom
c. Lastly, do something physical like stretching or a quick walk around the house or block.
Anything that moves you, as long as you do it in person to create connection – whether that is running, dancing, working out or jumping on a trampoline. Doing it with another human being and seeing facial interaction activates our social engagement system which re-installs our sense of safety and connection in our system.
5. Nature and sun
The outdoors offer healing through serotonin-producing sunshine, mineral-rich soil, and oxygen-producing plants.
6. Quality time with pets and loved ones
Spending dropped-in quality time with loved ones and pets invites in the sense of co-regulation that is essential to our capacity to self-regulate.
7. Steep into spiritual practices
Mindfulness practices, such as yoga, meditation, Reiki, journaling and prayer rituals involve cultivating a non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, which can help to reduce stress and anxiety.
8. Switch off
Our nervous systems become overly from notifications and multitasking. Aim to put your phone away at least an hour before bedtime, and maybe for 2-3 hours during the day and tend to any of the things mentioned above.
Nervous system regulation can feel daunting and scary and admittedly it is a lifelong journey to embark onto. Not every approach or tool will work at all times. Curiosity is key in the exploration of whatever might help or might not. It is important to not surrender or become frustrated if one thing did not help this time while it did a while ago.
There is a sense of exhale in the thought that we all are constantly evolving and changing in our needs and they way we show up in life. To resource ourselves long-term and sustainably begins with continuing the path of getting to know ourselves better, and over and over again, understanding and befriending the different states we come from at any given time of the day, and continue to meet all of us with love, patience and understanding.