Having a basic understanding of the nervous system is essential to understanding and improving your mental health.
The nervous system controls and regulates our body and is the center of mental activity: thinking, learning and memory. In combination with the endocrine system, the nervous system is responsible for maintaining homeostasis, an equilibrium of all processes necessary for survival.
The nervous system is comprised of nerves that carry out complex activities and keep us in touch with our internal and external environments. These activities are generally grouped as sensory, integrative, and motor functions and often carry out overlapping tasks.
The nervous system converts input from sensory receptors (in skin, eyes, organs, etc.) into nerve impulses that are transmitted to the brain. This leads to thoughts, sensations, emotions and feelings which are integrated into our actions and decisions. Based on this sensory input, the nervous system sends signals to glands and muscles to act accordingly.
Having a basic understanding of the nervous system is therefore essential to understanding mental health.
Let us dive deeper into how the nervous system orchestrates our involuntary and conscious functions.
The nervous system has two main components, the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS).
The Central Nervous System is comprised of the brain and spinal cord and is responsible for complex cognitive processes. It’s the core of consciousness, memory and learning, with the brain controlling and processing information and the spinal cord relaying messages between the brain and the body.
The Peripheral Nervous System surrounds the Central Nervous System with a network of nerves that run throughout the body. The Peripheral Nervous System is divided into the somatic and autonomic nervous systems which respectively control conscious movements and involuntary functions such as heart rate and respiration.
The two divisions of the autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic and parasympathetic – play crucial regulation roles. Although responsible for opposite functions, they maintain tone. The sympathetic division prepares the body for action, triggering what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The parasympathetic division promotes the ‘rest and digest’ response, which is characterized by relaxation and recovery. Within the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, the Vagus nerve plays a key role in the brain-gut axis, promoting body-mind connection, and nervous system regulation.
Nervous system regulation promotes the maintenance of homeostasis or the necessary balance for optimal cell functioning. Communication and looping feedback between the body and the brain prompt necessary actions and adjustments to achieve this balance. For example, if the body overheats, sweat glands are activated to cool the body down.
Nervous system regulation also plays a key role in restorative sleep, memory, sensory processing and reduction of inflammation, among others. Regulation between sympathetic and parasympathetic states allows for action and relaxation responses that promote balance and well-being.
As a consequence of the demands of modern life, including work and familial obligations, social media interactions, economic, political and environmental uncertainty, stress levels are high and rampant. This stress can lead to nervous system dysregulation and to getting stuck in either fight/flight or rest/reset responses.
Nervous system dysfunction can cause panic, anxiety, and hypervigilance or depression, hopelessness and complete despondency. This dysregulation also causes physiological conditions such as fatigue, brain fog, dizziness, headaches, nausea, gastrointestinal issues, muscle weakness, and irregular heart rate. The good news is that there are ways to regulate our nervous systems to return to a feeling of well-being.
American psychologist, Stephen Porges, developed the Polyvagal Theory to propose that the nervous system operates both consciously and automatically to regulate our health and behaviour. “It further proposes that physiological state limits the range of behavior and psychological experience”
The Polyvagal theory also proposes that the Vagus nerve plays a crucial role in the parasympathetic division of our Autonomic Nervous System and it is key to achieving nervous system regulation. It is comprised of two divisions; the dorsal branch which prompts our ‘freeze’ response and the ventral branch involved in the activation of the ‘rest and digest’ response.
When we are in ventral vagal state we can achieve physical and psychological balance. Physiologically, we can experience reduced heart rate, regular breathing, improved digestion and a reduction of stress hormones. Psychologically we achieve a sense of safety, mindfulness, connection, compassion and empathy.
The Vagus nerve runs from the brain, through the face and thorax and down into the abdomen. It creates that important connection between our brains and the digestive track, regulating physiological and psychological functions such as digestion, respiration, heart rate, immune responses, mood, and emotions.
Dysregulation often occurs when we are triggered into a sympathetic state, consumed with chaotic energy, either in attack mode or driven to escape. This survival state is what is known as our fight, flight, freeze or fawn mode. But dysregulation also occurs when we feel disconnected, drained of energy and just go through the motions hopelessly. It is difficult to come out of this state because we need to be sympathetically activated to move into ventral vagal state as simply remaining in a rest mode may actually make you feel worse.
Our increasingly stressful environments stimulate our nervous system and can lead to dysregulation. In the same way, a history of abuse, traumatic events, burnout, hormonal imbalances and even metabolic diseases put us at a greater risk of becoming dysregulated.
Understanding your personal risks and identifying your stressors can help you understand why you may be suffering from certain chronic health symptoms or why it is difficult to engage and connect socially.
Vagal stimulation happens naturally, but we can also stimulate our Vagus nerve through a variety of activities:
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is primarily responsible for regulating your breathing which can be consciously controlled. By purposely slowing down your breath, you signal to your brain that you are safe and calm. Research has shown that breathing exercises improve vagal tone, increase oxygen saturation and reduce anxiety.
There are many breathing techniques that can help regulate your nervous system. The 1:2 Breathing technique can get you started:
Inhale to a count of 3
Exhale to a count of 6
Repeat for at least 7-10 cycles
Work on increasing the length of the exhale, to a 4-8 cycle, for example
Allow an audible exhale, this helps to signal to the nervous system to relax.
When you hum, sing, chant or laugh you naturally modify your breathing. This sends a signal to your brain that you are safe. In the same way breathing can, these activities activate your vagal tone and promote a shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic mode, increasing your heart rate variability (HRV).
Heart rate variability (HRV) refers to the variation of time between heartbeats. Greater HRV indicates greater resistance to stress.
You can try chanting, especially chanting OM. This simple activity stimulates the muscles in the back of your throat, which are connected to the Vagus nerve while at the same time deactivating your amygdala which plays an important role in threat detention.
Mindfulness meditation allows you to intentionally focus on the present moment which can help you control your emotions. Studies have shown that mindful meditation encourages greater heart rate variability and slower, deeper breathing which in turn will increase your vagal tone and parasympathetic activity. There are a variety of mindful meditation exercises that lead to increased vagal tone and allow for nervous system regulation. You can start with a simple one like this;
Lie or sit down with your legs extended and palms facing upwards.
Focus your attention deliberately and slowly on each part of your body, from toe to head or head to toe.
Notice any sensations, emotions and thoughts that arise in association with each part of your body.
Exercise releases endorphins which are natural mood lifters. Becoming active also boosts energy. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between physical activity and your Vagus nerve. Regular physical activity is also associated with higher heart rate variability and resilience.
You can choose activities you enjoy whether walking, swimming or cycling. Other disciplines like yoga or tai chi, are excellent in promoting relaxation.
Changes in the temperature your body experiences can increase vagal tone. Research has shown that if you start with a cold shower your sympathetic system gets activated but once you have gotten acclimated there is a shift towards parasympathetic activity. You can try a 30 second cold shower or bath followed by warm water.
Getting enough rest and sleep is key in nervous system regulation. Your body and mind naturally restore and repair during sleep.
When you get restorative sleep, your sympathetic nervous system rests, relieving you from the fight or flight response. Research has shown that lack of sleep can increase sympathetic activities and blood pressure.
Try creating a routine designed for consistent sleep. Keep a schedule and practice relaxation techniques before going to sleep.
The foods we eat have a significant impact on the nervous system. The Vagus nerve is key in the gut-brain connection so eating foods that maintain the health of your microbiome is vital. Aim for a balanced diet that includes probiotics and food that contains Omega-3 fatty acids. These will help increase vagal regulation and reduce stress.
Alcohol slows down brain activity and can contribute to changes in mood, behavior and self-control. Research has also shown that alcohol consumption reduces heart rate variability, an essential component in nervous regulation.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, stimulants like caffeine and nicotine produce nervous system overreactions and trigger the release of stress hormones which can cause anxiety and nervousness. You can try limiting your consumption of these beverages and replacing them with herbal teas and other non-caffeinated options.
Spending time with friends and loved ones and participating in group activities fosters a sense of belonging and alleviates stress. When you establish social connections and experience positive emotions towards someone else your vagal tone increases providing a sense of calm and safety
Nature has a calming effect on the nervous system and research has shown that it can increase heart rate variability. You can try walking or hiking, swimming or simply observing the sunset or sunrise. These activities can aid in cortisol regulation and autonomic balance. Studies also suggest that walking barefoot in nature can activate your Vagus nerve and by extension aid in digestion, reduction of inflammation, improve sleep and create a sense of calmness and safety.
These are just some of the numerous activities and techniques you can utilize if you are experiencing nervous system disfunction. If you want further support, we have created courses and workshops that are specifically designed to address stress, anxiety and how to develop resilience in the face of the challenges we all experience in our daily lives. We’d love to hear from you!