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Nervous System Dysregulation Explained

So often in my work, I talk about “regulating the nervous system.” I love teaching tools and strategies to manage stress and cope with a dysregulated nervous system. But what does that even mean? 


We all have an autonomic nervous system that manages involuntary physiological processes in our bodies, such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, etc. Basically the things that allow us to keep on living. 


The autonomic nervous system had two main divisions - the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. 


The sympathetic nervous system controls certain responses in our body that serve to protect us. You may have heard of the fight, flight, or freeze responses. These are involuntary responses we have to certain threats to our survival. (More on this below). 


The parasympathetic nervous system calms things down and restores our bodies to a state of “rest and digest,” where our bodies can keep on functioning normally to stay alive.  


When our nervous system is dysregulated, it means we’re in a state of imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, often with the sympathetic nervous system being overactive or activated for a prolonged period of time. (i.e. chronic stress, anxiety)


When we remain in a dysregulated state for too long, we can experience physical, psychological, and cognitive malfunctioning. 

More on the fight, flight, or freeze responses:


The human brain is divided into different sections: 


The frontal lobes, or the “thinking brain,” is the part of the brain involved in thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, and verbal expression. 


The limbic system, often referred to as the “mammalian brain,” handles non-verbal emotions and experiences. 


The brainstem, the “reptilian brain,” manages the autonomic nervous system and functions mentioned above, such as heart rate and breathing. 


When we are in a state of distress, panic, or intense fear, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, providing a rush of adrenaline to increase heart rate and respiration, causing muscles to tense in preparation to defend ourselves. Hearing sharpens and pain perception decreases.


The prefrontal cortex (the part involved in thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, verbal expression, and memory) goes “off-line” so that the reptilian brain can work instinctively in overdrive to protect us. 


In life-or-death situations, our bodies need to be prepared to protect us by fighting (in self-defense), fleeing the situation (flight), or freezing. (Animals in the wild often freeze and “play-dead” to avoid attack. If they appear dead, predators may move on to another target, preferring fresh meat via a more recent kill. 🤢 Our wiring is the same–In some instances, when we become overwhelmed, we simply freeze.) 


This brain wiring served us well in prehistoric times. Think back to our cavemen ancestors:


Imagine a caveman out in the woods, searching for food. When he is approached by a threat, for example a hungry lion, his frontal lobes go off-line so his brain can focus on running away or fighting to survive. 


This was useful during times when we were frequently faced with dire situations. In modern, every-day life, these types of life-or-death attacks are much less common; however, our brain wiring really hasn’t changed much since the Stone Age.

Our sympathetic nervous system can still become triggered when faced with stress and feelings of overwhelm, thus it’s vital that we learn ways to activate the parasympathetic response to calm and regulate the nervous system. 


Want to learn ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to down-regulate and achieve more balance?

Join my mail list here or check out my Empowered Motherhood course, where I share lots of strategies to rewire your brain to become more calm, confident, and in-control.