In recent years, the field of mental health has witnessed a paradigm shift with the introduction of Polyvagal Theory. Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, this theory sheds light on the intricate connection between our autonomic nervous system and our overall well-being. By understanding how our nervous system responds to stress and trauma, we can actively regulate it and promote a healthier state of being. Keep reading to learn 5 tips how to regulate your nervous system.
According the Polyvagal Theory, our nervous system is comprised of our sympathetic nervous system that responded with mobilization, often referred to as “fight-or-flight” as well as the immobilized , dorsal vagal pathway of the parasympathetic nervous system often referred to as “freeze,” and the ventral vagal pathway of the parasympathetic nervous system that promotes safety and connection. When our nervous system is regulated, we move among these three states fluidly and in a way that matches what we experience throughout our day. When our nervous system is dysregulated, we may feel more reactive or even “hijacked” as we go through our day. As a Polyvagal Theory informed therapist, I will use this blog post to help you start to explore five valuable tips for regulating your nervous system based on Polyvagal Theory.
This blog post may be helpful if you relate to experiencing anxiety or emotional dysregulation, possibly because of a history of trauma. Polyvagal Theory suggests that our nervous system acts “in service of survival,” meaning our nervous system responds to cues of safety, danger, and life threat in ways to keep us safe. At times, our nervous system may become dysregulated, resulting in over activation or under activation. Our nervous system is shaped by experiences throughout our lives; however, we can take steps to become more active participants with our nervous system. Becoming a more active participant with your nervous system will allow you to feel less emotionally reactive and hopefully help in addressing the feeling of being hijacked. Let’s start exploring some of the ways we may be able to bring out nervous system towards a state of regulation using the Polyvagal Theory as a guide.
1. Cultivate Safety and Connection
According to Polyvagal Theory, our nervous system is wired to prioritize safety and connection. To regulate your nervous system effectively, it is essential to create an environment that promotes a sense of safety. Engage in activities that foster a feeling of security, such as spending time with loved ones, building strong social connections, or seeking out supportive communities. By surrounding yourself with positive and nurturing relationships, you can enhance your overall well-being and promote regulation within your nervous system. Polyvagal Theory often utilizes the work “co-regulation” to describe how we can use those outside of us to cultivate a sense of safety and connection. You can also be intentional with your environment, creating spaces that bring out a feeling of safety and connection. This could include bringing nature indoors or surrounding yourself with touchstones that represent the people or places where you feel most safe and connected. Spending time with our pets can also help with our sense safety and connection. Try looking around your space as you read this blog and identify something you notice that allows your nervous system to feel safe and connected in this moment.
2. Practice Mindful Awareness
Developing mindful awareness is a powerful tool for regulating your nervous system. By tuning into your body’s sensations and paying attention to your breath, you can activate the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation and restoration. Engage in mindfulness practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or yoga to cultivate a greater sense of self-awareness and regulate your nervous system’s response to stress. There are many different apps that can help in cultivating a practice of mindful awareness, and you may also be able to find groups or classes near you. Practicing mindful awareness with a group or in a class also helps in providing co-regulation discussing in our first tip. Learning about diaphragmatic breathing can be one first step in practicing mindful awareness. Diaphragmatic breathing is also often referred to as “belly breathing,” because you want to be able to feel your abdomen moving up and down as you practice this type of breathing. You can sense this by placing one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen in order to feel your abdomen expanding as you inhale. Try inhaling for about four seconds, holding for about two seconds, and exhaling for about six seconds. Diaphragmatic can be difficult if you’re new to the practice, so be sure to stop should you feel any discomfort.
3. Engage in Rhythmic and Regulating Activities
Polyvagal Theory emphasizes the importance of engaging in activities that naturally regulate your nervous system. These activities typically involve rhythmic and repetitive motions, which have a soothing effect on the autonomic nervous system. Consider incorporating practices such as walking in nature, dancing, swimming, or even listening to calming music into your daily routine. Engaging in these activities can help shift your nervous system from a state of hyperarousal to a more regulated and balanced state. Even coloring can be a rhythmic and regulating activity. If you’re interested in exploring a rhythmic and regulating activity with a professional, The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP), also developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, is a practical application of the Polyvagal Theory and is a music-based therapy intervention that works to retune the nervous system. Exploring the SSP with a therapist certified in this modality could be a helpful steps towards your nervous system regulation. What activity could you practice today that may be regulating for your nervous system? Maybe there is a song that comes to mind that provides you with a sense of calm you could listen to after reading this blog post!
4. Prioritize Self-Care and Relaxation
Self-care is crucial for maintaining a healthy nervous system. Take time for yourself and engage in activities that promote relaxation and rejuvenation. This can include taking warm baths, getting quality sleep, practicing self-compassion, or indulging in hobbies that bring you joy. By prioritizing self-care, you can reduce stress levels, support regulation within your nervous system, and enhance your overall well-being. Remember, self-care has both an indulgent as well as a responsible aspect. This means that sometimes self-care may look like taking a nap or visiting a spa while other times self-care may look like being sure to hydrate and drink water throughout your day or remembering to take prescribed medications. Think about what you can do today towards taking care of yourself.
5. Seek Professional Support
If you find it challenging to regulate your nervous system or if you have experienced significant trauma, seeking professional support is vital. Mental health professionals who are familiar with Polyvagal Theory can provide specialized interventions and techniques to help you navigate your individual journey toward regulation. Therapies such as somatic experiencing, trauma-informed therapy, or neurofeedback can be incredibly valuable in supporting your nervous system’s healing and regulation. If you’re in Texas, Crescent Counseling can help as a starting place, and you can check us out at www.crescentcounselingdallas.com. Reach out to learn more about Polyvagal Theory as well as therapy for trauma, anxiety, couples, emerging adulthood, and disordered eating. Reaching out to a therapist takes courage. Therapists near you are ready and honored to help in your journey towards greater nervous system regulation. It’s also okay if you are unsure if starting therapy is right for you.
Final Thoughts on How to Regulate your Nervous System
Polyvagal Theory offers a profound understanding of the connection between our autonomic nervous system and our mental well-being. By incorporating the principles of this theory into our lives, we can actively regulate our nervous system and promote a healthier state of being. Cultivating safety and connection, practicing mindful awareness, engaging in rhythmic activities, prioritizing self-care, and seeking professional support are essential steps toward regulating your nervous system. Each of these tips can help strength our connection to ourselves as well as within our relationships, allowing for healthier communication and overall connection. When our own nervous system is more regulated, the nervous systems of those around us notice, and co-regulation can be experienced. As a therapist utilizing Polyvagal Theory, I have seen many changes for my clients as they take steps towards better understanding and regulating their own nervous systems.
Thank you for reading this resource on 5 Tips How to Regulate Your Nervous System. Remember, each individual’s journey is unique, so be patient and kind to yourself as you explore these tips and find what works best for you. Self-compassion is another important aspect of the Polyvagal Theory that helps with this reminder. Because our nervous system acts in service of our survival, it’s important that we practice this self-compassion to acknowledge even our dysregulation without criticism, meeting ourselves instead with understanding. Also remember, you are not expected to make change on your own. Reach out to a therapist near you to explore if therapy could be helpful for you to continue addressing your mental well-being alongside a professional. Also, thank yourself for taking the step today of reading this blog post. Even reading this blog was an act of self-care in allowing yourself to explore something new and hopefully learn a new tip for helping regulate your own nervous system.