Have you ever thought about how your nervous system reacts to life? Whether you are aware or not, your daily responsibilities and the chaotic environment you might have around you directly affect it. You may not realize it, but drinking alcohol is dysregulating your nervous system big time. Our nervous system thrives on balance and when it’s unbalanced, symptoms start to show up that you may not even be aware of.
Other factors that can dysregulate the nervous system are a history of trauma, chronic stress, difficult relationships, big life changes, toxicity, infections, inflammation, and an unbalanced microbiome. Unfortunately, many of us have multiple factors that have a direct negative impact on our nervous system and can lead us to develop symptoms that can cause a big host of unpleasant life issues.
I know I was completely on autopilot when I drank, and although I felt it, I never paid attention to it. I didn’t understand enough to address it and realize how much it affected me. I had many of the mentioned above factors and had no idea there was a direct correlation to the overall way I felt every day. I thought it was just my “normal” and that I was stuck with it. I thought I had to lean on medications for the rest of my life to feel half OK.
Did you know we may drink alcohol excessively because our nervous system is dysregulated AND our nervous system gets dysregulated BECAUSE of alcohol? Either way, it leaves us feeling full of stress and anxiety and doesn’t make our life’s issues any better.
Do you feel overwhelmed at times during the day when you are working or running errands around town with the kids? When the nervous system is activated, this can increase feelings of anxiety tenfold. Then what do many moms do to reduce those feelings and believe it is a reward for them at the end of the day? They drink alcohol and the cycle continues.
So what are the signs that your nervous system is dysregulated? Symptoms such as sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, poor memory, attention and focus, irritability, and fatigue can all be signs that your nervous system is out of whack. Also, mood swings, mood disorders, and isolation can be signs of nervous system dysregulation. These symptoms not only affect you but can also affect those around you due to improper behavior.
When your nervous system is dysregulated, it can lead you to make poor choices, such as using alcohol to cope with feelings of stress and anxiety or to even using alcohol for sleep. While this will temporarily help, it will only help you feel better for a very short amount of time and is not a sustainable, healthy way to regulate and calm your nervous system.
What if instead of reaching for a substance that will end up making your situation worse, you had a way to give your nervous system what it needs to be in balance? Calming the nervous system down can help ground you so that you can make a clear decision on whether or not that glass (or bottle) of wine is a good idea. It will also help give you an overall sense of peace, helping shut that overwhelm down and fulfilling the need to use an external substance to meet your needs.
Some stress-reducing techniques work in the moment of feeling overwhelmed and others that when incorporated into your daily routine, can keep your stress levels in control, and your nervous system balanced, and help you react better when you come upon a stressful situation during the day. They help make you feel more grounded and at ease in general. Your mood improves and the chatter in your mind quiets down.
I was using alcohol as a band-aid because I didn’t know of any other way to help me deal with the anxiety and angst I was constantly feeling. I had trained my brain to crave alcohol when the thoughts in my mind started to go haywire. My nervous system was so revved up, and since I did not want to sit with that uncomfortable feeling, having some drinks was the only way out that I was aware of.
Since then, I have learned about the importance of being aware of what my nervous system needs to stay in balance and have a few tools in my toolbox to address it. I am going to share 6 exercises/practices that I currently use or have used in the past, to help keep my nervous system in balance.
1. Walking in nature – Taking a walk in nature can do wonders for calming your nervous system, especially if you have the opportunity to walk in the forest. Some benefits of walking in nature are a lower heart rate, reduced depression and anxiety, and a boost in mood and energy. It is such an easily accessible exercise that you can do wherever you are, not to mention walking counts towards your minimum of 150 minutes of exercise each week.
I make it a point to take multiple walks during the day. Also, having 2 dogs is a great excuse to get my sneakers on and get out the door! My most focused walk is right after lunch. I take the dogs out and I go “unplugged”, meaning I leave my phone at home and become fully aware of my surroundings as I walk. Try practicing mindfulness the next time you go for a walk and focus on the sounds of the birds chirping or how the breeze feels on your face. Notice how blue the sky is. Walking in nature is such a simple exercise that can make a world of difference in regulating your nervous system.
2. Meditation – Meditation is one of my favorite ways to keep stress away and my nervous system regulated. There are numerous benefits of meditation such as improved mood, and focus, and allows for better reaction to stressful situations. I have been meditating daily for over 4 years and I have experienced clear benefits from it. Meditation is my #1 favorite practice, hands down, to keep my nervous system in balance. Just taking even 5 minutes to meditate can recharge you and give you both mental and physical energy to get through the rest of your day.
I was always intrigued with meditation, but always thought it wasn’t for me, that it sounded like it was too hard and there was no way I would be able to sit in silence for an extended period. About 4 years ago, I decided to take a course to learn about meditation and how to go about doing it. Since then, I have practiced it daily. It took a lot of practice and patience, but I was willing to dedicate effort to it because I know there is a lot of science that supports the benefits of meditation. There are many different ways to meditate and I encourage you to explore and experiment with different methods. The Insight Timer app is free and has tons of different meditations to choose from.
I admit I was a skeptic before I dove in, but can tell you that it quickly became a habit for me and I have reaped positive benefits from including it in my daily routine. I find myself much calmer in general and able to handle stressful situations with much more ease. When I go away on vacation and I am not able to get in my daily dose of meditation due to the distraction of being in a different environment and schedule, I notice I lose my edge and my mood starts to dip after a few days, reminding me to get back into practice! It has also helped improve my focus and attention and I am in a much better mindset when my boys get off the bus in the afternoon, leaving me ready to tackle the busy after-school carpooling and the evening rush in a much more chilled-out mood.
3. Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing – Deep breathing is the quickest, most efficient way to calm and regulate the nervous system at the moment. Not only will deep breathing help you feel calmer, but it also reduced blood pressure and heart rate, improves digestion, increases energy, and improves overall immunity. Deep breathing also decreases the release of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Deep breathing is a tool I use every day to calm my nervous system. I take breaks during the day when I work and do a short deep breathing exercise. I have also incorporated deep breathing as a part of my bedtime routine to help me feel relaxed and it helps wind me down so I can fall asleep easier.
Try doing some deep breathing – breathe in for 4 seconds from your belly, hold for 2 and exhale for 8, releasing all of the air from your stomach. You can practice by putting your hand on your belly, and when you take a deep breath in, your belly should rise and your hand moves forward. When you exhale, your belly goes all the way in. It’s easier to practice this when lying down at first so you can get the hang of it. Having a longer exhale helps immediately calm down the nervous system. You can do deep breathing whenever you are when you feel triggered, have the urge to have a drink, or feel like anxiety is creeping in.
4. Guided Imagery – A powerful, yet simple, self-awareness tool that supports a calm nervous system is guided imagery. Guided imagery uses words and images to help move your attention away from worry, anxiety, and stress, which helps regulate your nervous system. It also benefits you by supporting you to help you find your inner strength and creativity. Research has found that some of the benefits of guided imagery include: a reduction in depression, anxiety, stress, sleep issues, and pain.
I have used guided imagery in the past during the sessions and fell into a state of complete relaxation. There are many apps available that offer guided imagery and one of my favorites is guided imagery practices by BelleRuth Naparstek. I was skeptical like many at first that I would not be able to focus and use my imagination to take myself to “another level”, but I was pleasantly surprised and glad I explored this valuable tool that is now part of my toolbox to keep my nervous system in check.
5. EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique is another way to regulate and calm the nervous system. It is an alternative practice that is believed to be able to create a balance in your energy system and may also help relieve physical pain. EFT targets your emotions and many people who have tried it report a decrease in anxiety and negative emotion. This practice can be used in the moment of distress or daily to keep the nervous system in proper balance.
EFT is done by doing gentle tapping with the fingers on specific meridian points while acknowledging this issue you are dealing with or worried about and fully accepting yourself despite the problem. Most who practice EFT find relief within only a few minutes of tapping and verbally repeating phrases on each meridian point. In other words, it does not take a lot of time to do this practice to find some relief and let go of anxiety, as a result, balance the nervous system.
Two great resources for EFT are the Tapping Solution app and Brad Yates on YouTube.
6. Grounding/Earthing – Have you ever thought about electrically connecting to the earth and what the benefits of it might be? Electrical charges from the earth can have positive effects on your health such as boosting your mood, increasing energy levels, reducing inflammation and pain, increasing heart rate variability, and improving sleep. Can you see how improving these areas of your health can directly affect the nervous system? Grounding is a very effective way to regulate your nervous system and it is a practice that is easily accessible.
I love to ground and although it is energizing, I also feel it is relaxing. The most common way is to just take off your shoes and walk barefoot on the grass or sand at the beach. Another way to do it is to lay down on the grass. When I feel like I need a break and a burst of energy during the day, I will go outside and lie down in my backyard. The only negative of it is that ants will usually find me and start crawling on me. But I just brush them off and allow myself to relax. I enjoy grounding in my backyard even more when I can lay in the sun and get my dose of Vitamin D for the day. It’s a win-win!
Learning ways to calm down and regulate your nervous system instead of turning to alcohol for a quick fix will make a world of a difference. You will feel more balanced and be able to move through your day with less anxiety and will be able to handle challenging situations with more ease. You will give your body and mind the support it naturally needs.