Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Neuroscience

Regulate Your Nervous System Right Now

Six quick and easy ways to bring yourself out of a state of stress or collapse.

Key points

  • A recent study found that the majority of people feel stressed about inflation, supply chain issues, and global uncertainty.
  • Polyvagal theory suggests a way to regulate our dysregulated nervous systems efficiently.
  • To regulate our nervous systems and return to a ventral vagal state, it helps to listen to music or complete a physical task.
Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash.
Source: Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash.

We are seriously stressed.

The American Psychological Association did a 2022 study that found that nearly two-thirds of adults felt “life has been forever changed” by the pandemic and that the vast majority felt stressed about inflation (87 percent), supply chain issues (81 percent), and global uncertainty (81 percent).

The study referred to living in an “unpredictable state of prolonged hypervigilance and growing financial strain,” on top of concerns about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

I’ve noticed the effects of this increased stress on my clients, my friends, and myself. These range from the aforementioned hypervigilance, panic, and anxiety to feeling hopeless and shut down. The good news is that there are concrete ways to regulate our nervous systems and bring them back into a state of calm and well-being. Even better, for those stressed or despondent about the state of the world: having a regulated nervous system allows us the capacity to create change on both an individual and systemic scale.

One efficient and effective way to regulate the nervous system is through Polyvagal Theory, developed in the 1990s by Stephen Porges. This theory posits that our nervous system works both automatically and consciously to keep our system regulated. The ventral vagal state is the ideal regulated state, in which we feel calm, connected to others, and able to take on the demands of the day.

Dysregulation occurs when we get triggered into a sympathetic state (described in 2021's Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory as "filled with chaotic energy, mobilized to attack, driven to escape, anxious, angry”) and are not able to come out of it. This survival state can also be referred to as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode.

Dysregulation also occurs in a dorsal vagal state or a shutdown state (described as “go through the motions, drained of energy, disconnect, lose hope, give up”). It’s particularly difficult to move out of this state because you need to go through the activated, sympathetic state to move into the ventral vagal state. Doing things to “relax” (e.g., watching TV, resting) will keep you in this state and may actually end up making you feel worse.

When we are able to realize what state we’re in, we have an incredible opportunity to consciously choose to regulate ourselves and come back into a ventral vagal state. Here are some five-minute-or-less ways to do that, depending on which state you find yourself in.

I’m stuck in a sympathetic (activated) state.

Take a conscious breath. Even just a momentary mental break can allow you to reconnect with your body and begin to move out of a triggered state.

If you’re outside, notice and take in any trees or plants. Being in nature is naturally calming. If no plants are available, pick a color and try to spot as many instances of this color as possible.

If you have access to music, play a relaxing song that you like or that reminds you of an enjoyable time in your life. Mindfully follow the lyrics or notes.

I’m stuck in a dorsal (shutdown) state.

Victoria Albina, NP, NPH, mentioned this practice in a recent workshop: touch your thumb to each fingertip, starting with your pointer finger and moving to your pinkie and back again. Notice if it feels enlivening to speed this up.

Play an upbeat song and move your body to it, even if it’s just your fingers or hands. Notice if you feel more energy and are able to move more or faster during the song if it feels good.

Pick one simple and ideally enjoyable physical task to complete. This could be getting and drinking a glass of water, stretching your arms and legs, or doodling with pen and paper for five minutes.

For all of these suggestions, check in with yourself before and after. Is there any softening, energizing, or calming energy that you feel? Starting small can help you practice regular nervous system regulation, which is helpful in a time that feels particularly overwhelming.

References

Dana, D. (2021). Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory. Sounds True.

advertisement
More from Julia Bartz LCSW
More from Psychology Today