Experiencing stress and trauma can be overwhelming — but living with chronic stress and unhealed trauma can be life-changing. And that chronic stress and unhealed trauma can lead to a dysregulated and overloaded nervous system that can turn into years, and even decades, of mental health issues, physical pain, and behavioral changes.
What's the importance of the nervous system anyway?
The nervous system is the body's communication and control center, coordinating almost everything you do, think, and feel.
It's divided into two main components: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).
The Central Nervous System (CNS) includes the brain (where we think, feel, and make decisions) and the spinal cord (where these messages from the brain can get passed to the limbs and organs around your body).
The Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) includes the nerves and neurons that actually travel with those messages. So when our brain thinks about riding a bike, our muscles automatically have the memory to do so. And when our fingers touch something hot, our brain makes the conscious decision to take them off whatever we're touching.
The Peripheral Nervous System is then further broken down into two parts — the Somatic Nervous System (which controls the movement in your body) and the Autonomic Nervous System (which controls and regulates the involuntary physiological processes of the body).
So what does it mean when a nervous system is dysregulated?
Stress is known to be an important factor when it comes to the regulation — and dysregulation — of the nervous system. This is because stress creates a disruption in the balance of communication and control between the Peripheral Nervous System and the Central Nervous System. And that imbalance can manifest in multiple different ways, which can affect both the physical and emotional aspects of an individual's well-being.
Here's are some signs to tell if your nervous system is dysregulated:
Your nervous system is responsible for coordinating and regulating various bodily functions, including your energy levels. So when the nervous system is dysregulated, it disrupts the delicate balance of your body's energy regulation mechanisms. Factors such as chronic stress and overstimulation can all contribute to this dysregulation, leading to extreme fatigue. It's crucial to remember that this is not a mere sign of laziness or lack of effort but a complex interplay of physiological and psychological factors.
A disruption in the smooth functioning of your gut is a key sign of nervous system dysregulation and can lead to a range of uncomfortable symptoms. The connection between your gut and nervous system is so intricate that stress and anxiety can manifest as physical manifestations, such as abdominal discomfort, bloating, and irregular bowel movements.
Struggling With Decision Making
Struggling with decision making can also be seen as a behavioral sign that your nervous system is dysregulated. When the nervous system is overloaded with stress or anxiety, it can lead to a decrease in cognitive functioning and an inability to make clear and decisive choices. This response is a protective mechanism that the body employs when it perceives a threat or feels overwhelmed. In these moments, the brain's capacity for rational thinking is diminished, and it becomes challenging to weigh the pros and cons of different options.
When the body's stress response is activated, it can trigger a cascade of physiological changes that often lead to a withdrawal from social interaction. This instinctual response is the body's way of conserving energy and protecting itself from perceived threats. During times of heightened stress or anxiety, it is common to feel overwhelmed or emotionally drained, making socializing challenging. The nervous system is focused on self-preservation, leading to a decreased desire to engage with others.
When the body experiences high levels of stress or trauma, it can activate the dissociative response as a way of protecting itself. Dissociation is characterized by a disconnect from one's thoughts, emotions, and surroundings, often resulting in a feeling of being detached or observing oneself from a distance. This response allows the nervous system to create a sense of emotional and psychological distance from overwhelming or traumatic experiences. It is a survival mechanism that temporarily numbs or separates oneself from the intensity of the situation.
During times of heightened stress or overwhelm, the brain's ability to process and retain information can be compromised. The body's stress response can trigger the release of stress hormones, which can impact memory and cognitive function. This can result in difficulty concentrating, organizing thoughts, and remembering important details. The nervous system's priority shifts from cognitive tasks to self-preservation, leading to a decrease in mental clarity and recall.
Low Mood & Depression
The emotional and mental symptoms of low mood and depression are a result of the body's response to stress and the inability of the nervous system to regulate emotions and moods effectively. In this state, individuals may struggle to find joy or pleasure in activities they once enjoyed.
Here's how to regulate your nervous system in 60 days with somatic exercises:
Somatic exercises are a form of healing practice that involves a combination of gentle, slow, and mindful movements that can be used to help reduce stress and tension in the body. By releasing tension in the body — as well as high cortisol levels and excess stress — somatic exercises can help to reduce the physical effects of stress on the nervous system.