A person’s nervous system generally spends most of the time with the parasympathetic (ventral vagal) nervous system activated to bring the nervous system to a calm state. When a person faces an emergency situation or crisis their sympathetic nervous system gets activated and after the crisis is over, the parasympathetic (Ventral vagal) nervous system brings the nervous system back to a normal state and calms it down.
When a person’s nervous system is dysregulated, this process fails to work as it is supposed to. A dysregulated nervous system easily turns to “danger” responses such as fight, flight, freeze or fawn. A person with a dysregulated nervous system can be agitated or shut down. Also, their nervous system has trouble returning to a calm, parasympathetic state.
What are the Signs & Symptoms of a Dysregulated Nervous System?
A person with a dysregulated nervous system won’t have all these signs and symptoms, but if you recognize a pattern of some of these symptoms in yourself, you may have a dysregulated nervous system:
- Difficulty relaxing
- Seem to be caught in a “fight or flight” trauma response or stuck in a “freeze or fawn” trauma response.
- A person who is a “People-pleaser.”
- Engages in “toxic positivity” to the point where they become out of touch with their own vulnerable emotions and the emotions of others.
- Thrill-seeking behaviours
- Auto-immune disorders and diseases, irritable bowel
- Constantly on edge, overwhelmed and/or overstimulated.
- Frequently snappy, irritable, and reactive
- Chronic pain and illness; unresolved aches and pains; somatization
- Highly sensitive to sensory stimuli
- Sleep problems (disrupted sleep, insomnia) and daytime fatigue
- Chronic attention and concentration problems; executive dysfunction
- Cravings and extreme appetite changes
- Immune and hormonal symptoms/compromised immune system (keep getting sick)
- Skin and gut conditions/ Digestive Issues/Nausea
- Highly sensitive to other people’s emotional states
- Constantly anxious, agitated, stressed and/or worried.
- Hard time controlling your emotions or the inability to feel emotions.
- Executive dysfunction
- Elevated or irregular heart rate.
What can Contribute to a Dysregulated Nervous System?
- Traumatic experiences
- Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
- Childhood trauma, especially chronic childhood trauma
- Witnessing Domestic violence
- Medical trauma
- Chronic stress
- Lack of social support
- Unfavourable living experiences
- Chemical imbalances
- Experience-dependent plasticity, resulting in a combination of symptoms and functional impairments.
What can be Done to Regulate a Nervous System that has become Dysregulated?
Some people need help to get back to a regulated state and techniques such as breathing exercises, using music to regulate, using exercise to self-regulate, grounding techniques, and many other techniques.
A person’s nervous system can get stuck in a dysregulated state, in this situation a person needs help to get to a regulated state. For these people, the relaxation, breathing, and grounding technique might not work to get them back to a regulated state or they take longer to create the effect that is desired.
- Polyvagal Theory gives a theoretical basis to understand how you can train your nervous system to regulate.
- Safe and Sound Protocol is an approach based on filtered music that is based on Polyvagal Theory to help a person regulate their nervous system. It can be adjusted to the unique needs of a person’s nervous system.
Cognitive techniques can also help to regulate the nervous system by adjusting the thought processes that can promote dysregulation. For example, if we can adjust your thinking so that the world doesn’t seem as dangerous, this can calm the nervous system.
Tanasuggarn, Annie. (November 5, 2022). The Health Risks of a Dysregulation Nervous System. Psychology today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-ptsd/202211/the-health-risks-dysregulated-nervous-system
Hogue, Loren. (August 10, 2022). 9 Signs You have a Dysregulated Nervous System. Link-in: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/9-signs-you-have-dysregulated-nervous-system-may-considered-hogue/
Elbers, J., Jaradeh, S., et al. (2018). Wired for threat: Clinical Features of nervous system Dysregulation in 80 Children. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pediatrneurol.2018.07.007
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