If you're a regular reader, you have heard me use the phrase nervous system regulation. What does this mean? And what soothes the nervous system and contributes to nervous system regulation?
First, let's define some terms. Your nervous system is the part of you that runs the show. It consists of your brain, spinal cord and all the nerves in your body. Your brain is the command center and your nerves are the wires that carry those commands to various parts of your body to help each part of you work the way it's supposed to and carry information from the body back up to the spinal cord and brain to be processed. (We are more complex than this, but for the sake of this post, we will go simple!). Nervous system regulation, then, is a well running nervous system - your brain receives information in a timely manner, interprets it correctly and makes decisions based on the information received and how that information was processed in order to keep you safe and alive. Your conscious mind has little awareness of this work, you are engaged with others, feel good mentally, emotionally and physically, are able to learn and overall feel stable and able to handle the inevitable bumps in the road well.
When we think of a regulated nervous system, we can use the concept of a window of tolerance created by Dr. Dan Siegel to understand why we may feel regulated and how we may feel more regulated. Let's start with an analogy: imagine your nervous system is a cup of a particular size, determined in part by genetics, and stress as drops of water (let's define stress as "a condition that imposes severe demands on the physical and psychological defenses of the organism"). Each stressor has a corresponding size of water droplet based on how bad we perceive that stressor to be; minor irritations are small droplets, big stressors and life threatening stressors are big drops of water (I'll post on perception of threat and stress later!).
Our nervous system's ability to cope with stressors is based on the size of the cup and the space inside the cup the water droplets take up. If there are just a few drops, just a few stressors, your cup has a lot of capacity for the things that come it’s way. If we have a lot more stressors, a lot more drops, there is less capacity in the cup and not so much room for anything else other than what’s already in the cup. Our window of tolerance is the capacity, the space, that is left over when all of our stress drops have been accounted for.
Likely we are aware of the stress of work, money, parenting during a pandemic and we can see all the drops of stress from them in our cup. But we often don’t recognize the other stress drops in our cup. These can be things that happened to us in the past, even before we were born. Our nervous system’s job is to keep us alive and it registers every single threat to our life and responds accordingly. Mom smoked while she was pregnant with you - there’s some stress drops in your cup. There were relationship or financial struggles before you were born and mom was under excess stress - more stress drops. You had difficulty feeding as a newborn or mom and dad had difficulty figuring out how to care for you, more stress drops. Surgeries, illnesses, losses, mis-attunememts and lack of co-regulation, societal pressures to “man up” or “stop your crying or ill give you something to cry about”, constant blue light, not getting enough sleep, environmental toxins, inflammatory foods, bullies, abuse, accidents, being shamed for being a kid, told to grow up too soon…..all of those stressors are added to our cup and, if they haven’t been dealt with in the right way, can fill our cup nearly to the top before we’re old enough to vote! (How to deal with stressors will be explained more thoroughly later!)
All of these stressors create what is called an allostatic load - a wear and tear on our organs and systems from stress hormones and a lack of the proper environment to heal and regenerate healthy cells that lead to degeneration and ultimately disease. Is it any wonder we hit a certain age and suddenly find ourselves with a myriad of symptoms and new diagnoses and the need for medication?
Back to the window of tolerance. When we are in our window of tolerance, we feel calm, social, relaxed, able to have fun, sleep well. When we are not in our window of tolerance, we are either hyperaroused in states of fight or flight or hypoaroused in freeze. Outside our window of tolerance, we are overwhelmed and act from activated emotional states where the cognitive part of the brain, the part that can think rationally and understands consequences, is offline and we’re just not able to access it. Depending on how much capacity we have in our cup, it may just take one more stressor, one more stress drop, to push us out of our window of tolerance and we blow up at a co-worker or yell at our kids “for no good reason” or we go looking for one more glass of wine to calm us down or a pint of ice cream to bring us back into a false calm.
Can you see how having a fuller cup and a smaller window of tolerance makes us more reactive to life? When we have more capacity in our cup because we have been taught how to handle our emotions, have had caregivers attune to our needs and provide co-regulation, our cup never gets very full because we are dealing with the stress drops as they come up rather than letting them fill the cup. We always have capacity and space in our cup so when the inevitable bigger stress comes along, we have the capacity to stay within our window of tolerance and think rationally and make good choices rather than just reacting.
Likely you were not taught much in the way of dealing with your stress drops. But just because your cup is fuller than you’d like, it doesn’t mean you are doomed. You can learn tools to deal with the stress drops and create space and capacity in your cup, i.e. your nervous system. And with practice and intention, these new tools will become habits and ways of dealing with stress drops as they happen rather than letting them accumulate to overflowing.
Here are some ways of dealing with the stress drops in our current cups:
Knowing where our body is in space, i.e. proprioception
Visual and vestibular systems that communicate effectively to each other and the brain
Having the ability to know where all of our parts are and have to ability to move them and to move them on the regular
Vagus Nerve stimulation and toning
Prosody and sounds within a certain range and at certain decibel levels
The ability to scan the environment thoroughly (i.e. having the ROM in our musculoskeletal system and good enough vision to look around us)
Getting enough sleep
Getting enough rest
Co-regulation with other well regulated nervous systems
Co-regulation with other mammals
Well functioning cranial nerves
A properly supported spine to keep our nervous system intact
Proper circulation and lymph drainage
Proper organ motility and mobility
Mindful and intentional practices whether it be movement, art, dance, yoga - when we pay attention and don’t just zone out
Some of these seem weird - "how do I do proprioception? I don’t even know what it means." This is where having a coach to guide you is helpful. Likely you’ve heard of yoga and meditation and maybe even tried it, but it didn’t work for you. Having alternative strategies for creating space and safety in the nervous system is key to healing. For example, if you had chronic ankle sprains and have a wonky ankle and as an adult are finding your stress cup full to overflowing, unable to stay in your window of tolerance and flying off the handle at every little thing or finding yourself always sick, we may find your nervous system calms down when we work on stabilizing your wonky ankle. Now, your nervous system doesn’t have to constantly assess your ankle’s ability to keep you on your feet with every step you take. You have trained your ankle and your brain that you have a stable ankle, one that is capable of keeping you upright. And now you find your stress cup not quite so full and you're more easily able to stay within your window of tolerance.
Like I mentioned, not all of these work for everyone. You may find that initially sitting still and meditating is too hard for you; it’s makes you anxious and uncomfortable. You may do better with a mindful movement practice or aerobic exercise. Eventually sitting in meditation may be viable once you’ve moved some of that fight or flight energy out of your body, i.e. drained your cup of some stress drops.
Basically, the better we “run”, i.e. the healthier we are (not the fittest!), the happier our nervous system is. Think of it this way - are you more efficient when you’re being pulled in 20 different directions with urgency or when you have just a few tasks with a set amount of time to accomplish them all?
Learning nervous system regulation techniques is key to healing and really just feeling better. Some of these things you can look up and do on your own; some require the assistance of a professional. Being a trauma informed Physical Therapist allows me to see the big picture and offer you so many ways to heal! Reach out with questions!
(I offer stressed-out, burnt-out women in pain opportunities to begin and continue on their healing journeys via hands on nervous system regulation, otherwise known as bodywork, movement instruction for nervous system regulation via improved communication with the body, and BodyMind Coaching to help put all of this together to help you heal and take charge of your health. I offer in person services in Spicer, MN and online BodyMind Coaching. Additionally, I have an online group coaching program launching this year. For more information, check my website kirstinbergman.com).