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Nurturing Serenity: Natural Ways to Calm Your Nervous System

These 8 strategies can keep you calm and build your emotional health.

Key points

  • Thoughts and feelings are inherently part of a chemical process that is regulated by your nervous system.
  • An overstressed nervous system can disrupt the neuro-chemical balance in your brain.
  • A dysregulated nervous system leads to dysregulated emotions and behavior.
Nina Buday/Shutterstock
Source: Nina Buday/Shutterstock

As a cognitively oriented psychologist, I spend a lot of my time helping people to observe and change their thinking. This is a process that requires people to use their conscious mind to override their automatic one. Thought comes before emotion, and when you develop the skill of learning how to direct your thoughts, you are also learning how to manage your emotions.

Thoughts and feelings, however, are inherently part of a chemical process that is regulated by your nervous system. Your nervous system is responsible for producing the neurotransmitters that your brain uses to transmit thought and create emotional responses. When your nervous system is overstressed and/or isn’t working properly, the neuro-chemical balance in your brain gets disrupted, and it can negatively affect your thinking and your emotional responses.

This two-way street, where your thoughts can affect the chemical balance of your brain while the chemical balance of the brain can affect the way you think and feel, can create a negative feedback loop that can be hard to break. For example, if you’re thinking about things that make you feel anxious, your brain releases more cortisol, which can make you feel even more anxious, and this will lead to more anxious thoughts, which leads to more cortisol.

If your nervous system is unbalanced, it makes the process of trying to work on your thoughts extremely difficult. This is why many people find change so challenging. So, to really benefit from the life-changing process of learning to observe and direct your thinking, it is important that your nervous system be functioning optimally.

Vitalii Khodzinskyi/Unsplash
Source: Vitalii Khodzinskyi/Unsplash

In today’s world, almost everyone’s nervous system is on overload. If you are constantly stressed, your fight/flight (sympathetic) system is chronically overactive and your parasympathetic system, which is responsible for calming and relaxing you, has to work on overdrive. Like anything that is overworked, these major subsystems of your nervous system become exhausted and can start to break down.

The functioning of your nervous system can also be impacted by sustained complex trauma over time such as child physical or emotional abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, or war.

A dysregulated nervous system results in dysregulated emotions. You may be overly revved up and overreactive, with less ability to calm yourself, and/or be underreactive and display less emotional responsivity than would be warranted in various situations. Some symptoms of a nervous system that isn’t functioning properly include the following:

  • being easily overwhelmed
  • having impaired ability to focus and concentrate
  • experiencing insomnia
  • feeling overemotional and crying easily with no real reason
  • having frequent mood shifts
  • acting impulsively
  • having angry outbursts
  • feeling depression and/or anxiety
  • engaging in self-harm behaviors and having suicidal thoughts
  • being perfectionistic
  • experiencing relationship conflict

While medication may be an important treatment option for some of these issues, there also are many natural ways that you can calm and heal your nervous system on your own. To improve your emotional resiliency, I recommend prioritizing caring for your nervous system as part of your regular self-care to promote your overall emotional health. Below are some effective strategies I often recommend to my patients. The more of them you do, the more of a cumulative effect you will get. For maximum benefit, these strategies should be practiced on a consistent daily or almost daily basis.

1. Meditating to calming music: There are many types of meditation, and all have benefit; however, not all are equal for calming your nervous system. Many meditation apps use guided meditation where someone talks to you while you follow what they are saying. This requires you to activate the language and often visual areas of the brain and isn’t as soothing as meditations that rely on actively listening to music where your brain and body can regulate to the vibratory nature of the music. Active listening doesn’t mean you just zone out; it means you are focusing attention on the music and following it. Meditation music is plentiful, and you have to choose something that resonates with you; however, one that I will recommend because it was developed by a neuroscientist and has research to support that it calms the nervous system and reduces anxiety is "Weightless" by Marconi Union. Listening for 20 to 30 minutes a day has produced surprising and very noticeable results for people I’ve worked with in a way that other meditation hasn’t.

Mantra meditations, which involve the rhythmic repetition of words, phrases, or syllables and often involve calming music, are also a powerful way to soothe your nervous system. To learn more about Mantra meditation read my post Mantra: A Powerful Way to Improve Your Well-Being.

2. Breathing: According to neuroscientists, one of the fastest ways to calm yourself when you are in an acute state of being emotionally upset is to take two short breaths in and then exhale one long slow breath, repeat three times. As a longer-term strategy for training the parasympathetic nervous system to respond in a calmer way, I often recommend "4-7-8" breathing to my patients. This involves breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds, and exhaling for eight seconds. Practicing this for five minutes a day can reduce your overall emotional reactivity.

3. Sleep: Quality sleep cannot be overstated. It is the foundation of good physical and mental health. How much you need differs from person to person, but, on average, seven to eight hours is recommended. The basic principles of sleep hygiene are cut caffeine and alcohol, calm yourself at least 30 minutes before bed by turning off all electronics including the TV, cool your room to 64 to 67 degrees, and make sure your room is as dark as possible. There are a number of sleep strategies you can learn including a therapy treatment called I-CBT, so if sleep is an issue for you, I would recommend taking it seriously by doing some research and, if necessary, making an appointment to see a sleep doctor.

4. Nutrition: There is growing research demonstrating that the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain involved in feelings of well-being, such as serotonin, are directly affected by the gut microbiome (the microorganisms in the digestive tract). What you eat becomes the building blocks for your body to create neurotransmitters and other chemicals that regulate your nervous system. Recent research suggests that adopting the Mediterranean whole-food diet while reducing sugar, fried food, and alcohol can significantly improve depression and overall emotional health.

5. Gentle exercise: Your body needs physical movement to function well. It has long been known that exercise releases endorphins in the body, which results in feelings of calm and pleasure. Research shows that 10 minutes or more of cardiovascular exercise a day is enough to significantly improve mood functioning; however, gentle exercise such as walking, yoga, and tai chi are particularly beneficial for calming the nervous system.

6. Herbs: There are a number of herbs and herbal teas that have been shown to be calming to the nervous system. My favorite is two cups of lemon balm tea a day. Other herbs such as chamomile, kava, lavender, passionflower, and valerian also can be effective. Some herbs can interact and interfere with the potency of medications, so always be sure to check with your medical doctor before trying herbal remedies.

7. Supplements: There are a number of supplements that are essential for proper functioning of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. They help the production of neurotransmitters so that your brain can properly transmit signals, and they’ve been shown to improve mood and promote relaxation. Magnesium, B vitamins, ashwagandha, omega-3 fatty acids, and GABA are some of the most notable ones. As with herbs, it is important to check with your medical doctor before starting a supplement so they can recommend the proper dosage and to make sure it won’t interfere with any medications you might be taking.

8. Pet therapy: Animals can provide sweet, kind, loving positive energy. Research has shown that by spending time with animals you can co-regulate your nervous system to their energy, which can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as decrease physiological arousal such as heart rate and blood pressure.

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