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What Does Nervous System Regulation Have to Do with Me?

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

A regulated nervous system describes a state where we can move through stressors, stay present and engaged and have the capacity to process our experience.

A dysregulated nervous system describes a state in which we enter high levels of arousal and feel overwhelmed, becoming either aggressive or withdrawn or shut down.

Do you sometimes find yourself overreacting or shutting down and feeling debilitated by stress?

Me too.

I've spent the last few years learning about nervous system science and I'm finding it a game changer.

It's not an overnight solution, good things rarely are! Changing our stress patterning takes commitment and dedication, patience and humility.

But in short, understanding how our nervous system works and practicing some regulation tools can, over time, give us back our autonomy over how we feel, act and relate.

Part 1 of a three-part series.

This is part one in a three-part series of blogs that will explore and contextualise nervous system regulation in the arenas of self-care, psychotherapy and meditation.

In this first blog I'll cover some key terms, a simple overview of how humans build up stress, the basics of nervous system science and an introduction to the Window of Tolerance model of nervous system regulation.

It's quite a read, so I encourage you to make cup of tea and settle yourself down for the next 10 minutes or so.

Some key terms and an overview of how we build up stress in our bodies.

  • Stress ~ A physical reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure; a healthy amount supports us to meet the demands of life, but too much disrupts our mood, body and relationships.

  • Nervous system ~ A complex part of our biology that communicates between our nerves, spinal cord and brain, controlling much of what we think, feel and do.

  • Regulated nervous system ~ A capacity to move fluidly between different levels of arousal.

  • Dysregulated nervous system ~ A prolonged fight, flight or freeze response resulting in poorly modulated emotional reactions to day-to-day stressors.

  • Nervous system regulation tools ~ Simple self-help practices that support us to notice signs of dysregulation earlier and interrupt habitual patterns of high arousal / chronic stress.

What is Nervous System Regulation?

Our highly sensitive central nervous system (CNS) controls much of what we think, feel and do. It is made of communication pathways between our nerves, spinal cord and brain that assess both real and perceived stressors in our lives.

Part of our CNS is set up to deal with these stressors by readying us for action and taking us into different states of arousal affecting our attention, consciousness and alertness.

A regulated nervous system is one that can move fluidly and appropriately between these states of arousal.

A dysregulated nervous system is one that responds to ordinary day to day stressors such as traffic jams, disagreement or bad news through the high arousal states of fight, flight or freeze, which are actually survival mechanisms for when our life is really in danger.

Learning to recognise the signs of dysregulation and using the necessary tools and behaviours that promote fluidity and stability is the basis of nervous system regulation.

A regulated nervous system describes a state where we can move through stressors, stay present and engaged and have the capacity to process our experience.

A dysregulated nervous system describes a state in which we enter high levels of arousal and feel overwhelmed, becoming either aggressive or withdrawn or shut down.

Step 1 ~ Understanding how our nervous systems work.

This is the first step to learning how to increase our capacity for regulation.

The part of our CNS that readies us for action is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and it has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.

The sympathetic has a single branch which, when healthy, leads to us being active and productive. However, if this branch becomes overly activated, we go into the survival mechanism of fight or flight, otherwise known as hyper-arousal.

The parasympathetic has two branches. The first supports us when we are very young to go into deep rest when we reach our capacity for stimulation. As we get older and experience high stress levels, if fight and flight are not options or we cannot sustain them, this same branch will take us into the alternative survival mechanism of freeze otherwise known as hypo-arousal.

The second branch of the parasympathetic supports our bodies to rest and digest, facilitating stabilisation and integration. This helps distinguish regular life stress from life threatening stress. This branch also supports our capacity to find safety, nourishment and ease through social engagement with others.

To function well we need a combination of some arousal from both our sympathetic and our parasympathetic branches that culminates as relaxed alertness.

Step 2 ~ Becoming familiar with our Window of Tolerance (WOT).

The Window of Tolerance (WOT) is a really useful model developed by Dan Siegal to help us learn to tolerate higher levels of nervous system arousal and increase the time we spend regulated.

We will have different WOT levels in different situations, e.g., we might have a larger window for busy family life, but a much smaller one in an interview situation.

As explained in step 1, stress can build up and cause us to become dysregulated. If this happens, we are said to be outside of our WOT, either in hyperarousal (fight or flight) or hypoarousal (freeze).

As we start to become more conscious of our experience of being regulated versus being dysregulated, we can learn to take steps to return to regulation. Over time we'll grow our capacity for tolerating higher levels of stress without becoming dysregulated in a variety of situations. In other words, we will increase the size of our Window of Tolerance.

Step 3 ~ Returning to a regulated nervous system

Returning to regulation require us to grow the muscles of self-care and kindness during times of upset or overwhelm.

We can do this through a combination of self-regulation practices, and co-regulation time spent with others who are in a regulated state.

Solo practices can be employed in moments of dysregulation, and / or incorporated into daily routines as a way to build our conscious connection to what regulation feels like for us.

Depending upon whether we have gone into hypo or hyper arousal, different techniques can help us wake up from freeze or come down from fight or flight.

In hyper-arousal we may feel angry, irritable, chaotic, hyper-vigilant, anxious, have racing thoughts and restlessness. Mindful techniques can support a discharging of energy and a settling in our mind and body again.

In hypo-arousal we may feel overwhelmed, numb, exhausted, lethargic and shut down. Activities that support a connection with our physical self and surroundings can help us feel present again.

Hyper ~ become mindful:

~ Run on the spot

~ Engage in strong physical exercise.

~ Move mindfully.

~ Dance to music that matches your mood.

~ Open and clench your hands repeatedly.

~ Walk at whatever pace feels helpful.

~ Talk to someone who is regulated.

Hypo ~find connection:

~ Stand feeling your feet on floor / earth.

~ Walk briskly, noticing surroundings.

~ Feel the sensations of rubbing your hands together.

~ Engage your sense of smell / taste.

~ Hug yourself / stroke limbs until we feel the contact

~ Hum so that you can feel the vibration in your body.

Sometimes it may be hard to know what we need, so it's helpful just to try things out and follow what feels right for us at each time. We can notice what feels good and build up our own list.

It's important to know that being regulated doesn't equate with happiness. For example, we can have a heated debate and be regulated. Regulation is a state where we are alert, spacious, able to think and feel and engage with the situation at hand.

Step 4 ~ Increasing our Window of Tolerance.

Initially it makes sense to get to know our regulated state and we can do this by noticing our nervous system during simple activities that we enjoy and feel relaxed in. As we become familiar to ourselves in a regulated state, we can then start to notice our signs of stress during challenging situations and pause to self-regulate.

Little by little we will learn to recognise when we are dysregulated and then choose to reorient towards regulation which will naturally increase our Window of Tolerance.

Changing habitual responses to stress takes time, so orientating towards regulation is a way of life rather than a short-term fix. As we redirect ourselves towards increased regulation it is really important to be patient and kind with ourselves knowing that in processes of change, it is natural to circle between new ways of being and old habits.


Further reading and training:

Part 3 in this series ~ The role of nervous system regulation in meditation. ~ coming soon.

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