Mental Health and A Dysregulated Nervous System: What You Need To Know

The human nervous system is a complex network that plays a crucial role in regulating our mental health and overall well-being. For individuals grappling with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma, depression, and stress-related health issues like gut problems, the conversation often centers around a dysregulated nervous system. This blog post aims to demystify the relationship between the central nervous system and mental health, offering strategies to restore balance and harmony within.

The Basics of Nervous System Regulation

To begin, we need to understand the key components of the nervous system. The central nervous system, composed of the brain and spinal cord, acts as the control center for our body. It works in tandem with the peripheral nervous system, which includes the autonomic nervous system (responsible for involuntary bodily functions), the somatic nervous system (manages voluntary movements), the limbic system and the enteric nervous system (governs the digestive system).

The autonomic nervous system further divides into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic system prepares the body’s stress response for a ‘fight or flight’ mode, while the parasympathetic nervous system plays helps us to ‘rest and digest,’ aiming to restore balance after stress.

Signs of Nervous System Dysregulation

Nervous system dysregulation may manifest through various physical symptoms and emotional stress signals. Individuals may experience heightened blood pressure, chronic pain, sleep disturbances, muscle tension, and digestive problems. Emotional symptoms can range from difficulty concentrating and chronic fatigue syndrome to anxiety disorders and physical signs of emotional dysregulation.

The nervous system’s health can drastically affect mental health conditions, thereby influencing our physical health. For example, the gut-brain connection reflects how an overstimulated nervous system can lead to gastrointestinal distress, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Research suggests that chronic nervous system dysregulation can also lead to more severe health conditions, such as depressive and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and weakened immune system function.

Coping Strategies for Nervous System Regulation

Addressing chronic nervous system dysregulation involves adopting practices that promote a regulated peripheral nervous system. Here are several strategies that can help:

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing exercises are a powerful tool for calming the nervous system. Techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing can help shift the body from a state of stress (sympathetic activation) to a state of relaxation (parasympathetic activation). By focusing on slow, deep breaths, you can stimulate the vagus nerve, which plays a pivotal role in regulating the heart rate and calming the mind. A simple yet effective exercise involves inhaling slowly through the nose for a count of four, holding the breath for a count of four, and then exhaling slowly through the mouth for a count of six. Practicing deep breathing exercises for a few minutes daily can significantly reduce stress levels and enhance overall nervous system health.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is another technique that promotes nervous system regulation by systematically tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in the body. This process not only helps in reducing physical tension but also diverts the mind away from stressors, fostering a state of deep relaxation. To practice PMR, start by tensing the muscles in your feet for about five seconds, then consciously relax them for 30 seconds. Gradually work your way up the body, tensing and relaxing muscle groups, including your legs, abdomen, arms, and face. Regular practice can help in lowering stress, reducing symptoms of anxiety and improving sleep quality.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness meditation encourages the practice of being present and fully engaged with the moment without judgment. It involves paying attention to thoughts, feelings, and sensations in a non-reactive way, which can help in recognizing and managing stressors and emotional responses more effectively. Starting with just a few minutes each day, you can practice mindfulness by sitting in a quiet place, focusing on your breath, and bringing your attention back whenever your mind wanders. Over time, mindfulness meditation can enhance emotional regulation, decrease stress, and boost resilience against day-to-day challenges.

Implementing these coping strategies consistently can lead to meaningful changes in nervous system regulation, contribute to improved mental health, and foster a sense of well-being. It’s important to remember that these practices are most effective when integrated into daily routines and tailored to fit individual preferences and lifestyles.

Understanding Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn and Submit

The nervous system’s response to perceived threats is not limited to the well-known ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. It includes a range of reactions—freeze, fawn, and submit—that are essential for therapists and individuals alike to understand in the context of trauma and stress.

When the nervous system perceives a threat it cannot escape from by fighting or fleeing, it may resort to ‘freezing,’ a state of paralytic, hoped-for invisibility to a predator. In contrast, ‘fawning’ involves attempts to avoid conflict and further threats by pleasing or appeasing the source of threat. Lastly, ‘submitting’ can occur when an individual acknowledges their complete lack of control over a situation, leading to a cessation of all perceived resistance. Each of these responses can significantly impact an individual’s mental health and well-being, influencing behavior patterns and emotional regulation. Acknowledging and understanding these responses are critical steps in the therapeutic process, providing pathways to healing and recovery.

Improving Vagal Tone

The vagus nerve plays a pivotal role in the parasympathetic nervous system. Techniques like gargling or singing can improve its function and help regulate your parasympathetic nervous system.

Exercise and Movement

Regular physical activity is vital for maintaining the nervous system’s overall health. Exercise releases stress hormones and promotes a healthy autonomic nervous system.

The Impact of Traumatic Events

Traumatic events can have a profound impact on an individual’s mental and physical health. Research indicates that experiences of trauma can lead to long-term alterations in the body’s stress response systems. A seminal study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente, known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, has shown a strong correlation between exposure to trauma in childhood and the development of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, depression, and substance abuse, later in life. Additionally, neuroimaging studies have observed changes in brain structure and function in individuals who have experienced trauma, particularly in areas involved in emotion regulation, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. These physiological changes can contribute to difficulties in managing stress and emotions, indicating a heightened risk for psychiatric disorders. Engaging in therapeutic interventions, such as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Sensorimotor psychotherapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), has been found effective in mitigating these long-term effects, emphasizing the importance of addressing traumatic experiences through supportive and evidence-based approaches.

Strategies to Restore Balance

Growing research in the field helps us understand that while the biological stress system dysregulation is complex, it is also treatable. Educating oneself on the relations

hip between the brain and nervous system and stress management can provide a foundation for a healthier normal functioning nervous system.

Fostering Connection

Social support can act as a stress buffer and directly impacts the autonomic nervous system dysregulation. Deep connections with others can promote a sense of safety, which supports sympathetic nervous system down regulation.


Understanding and addressing nervous system dysregulation is a profound step toward enhancing one’s mental health and overall well-being. Through self-awareness, education, practical strategies, and professional support, one can hope to overcome the challenges of a dysregulated nervous system and achieve a regulated nervous system.

Mental health is highly linked to nervous system health, by nurturing this relationship, we open the doors to a more balanced and fulfilling life. For those whose lives are impacted by dysregulated nervous system issues, remember: you’re not alone, and there is hope for recovery and balance. Taking the steps to inform yourself and to find both personal and professional support can be transformational.

About the Author – Racheal Turner 

My name is Racheal, and I am the heart and soul behind Turning Point Counseling located in Phoenix, Arizona. With a passion for helping individuals, couples, and families find their path to emotional well-being, I have dedicated my career to becoming a safe haven for those navigating life’s challenges. If you enjoyed this blog post, you can check out my blog here.

It’s an honor to contribute a guest blog post for That’s So Well. Arielle Pinkston is an exceptional therapist specializing in supporting women dealing with issues such as anxiety, perfectionism, relationships, academic/career stress, life changes, and low self-esteem. You can learn more about her services at


To further explore the topics discussed in this document and validate the information provided, readers are encouraged to consult the following sources:

  1. “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk. This book offers a deep dive into how trauma impacts the body and mind, and explores pathways toward healing.
  2. “Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation” by Deb Dana. Dana provides an accessible overview of Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory and its application in therapeutic settings for nervous system regulation.
  3. “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. This book outlines a straightforward approach to incorporating mindfulness into daily life to manage stress and anxiety.
  4. The American Psychological Association (APA) website offers numerous articles, research papers, and resources on stress management, the effects of trauma on the nervous system, and therapeutic approaches to addressing chronic stress and PTSD.
  5. “The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain” by Louis Cozolino. Cozolino explores the intricate relationship between neurological processes and social connections, highlighting the importance of relationships in mental health and nervous system regulation.
  6. PubMed Central and Google Scholar for research articles on the autonomic nervous system, vagal tone exercises, and the impact of exercise on stress hormone levels.

These references were instrumental in compiling the information and strategies presented in this document. They provide a solid foundation for understanding the complex interplay between the nervous system and mental health, as well as practical guidance for achieving regulation and balance.

Some of the books linked in this article contain Amazon associate links. I earn from qualifying purchases.

That's So Well Therapist Arielle

It's me, Arielle!

Holistic Therapist, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and Yoga Instructor in Elk Grove, California.

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