The Nervous System and Mental Health

Understanding The Nervous System

The nervous system plays a fascinating and crucial role on our road to mental wellbeing. It is our own personal instruction manual for navigating the world. Our nervous system affects the way we think, feel, and act. You could think of it as a sophisticated supercomputer that stores and processes information which is then used as your template for navigating the world. Not taking the time to understand our nervous system and how it functions comes at a great detriment to our health and well-being.

Without basic understanding of how our nervous system functions, we lack having the tools to regulate it when it falls out of balance. You may as well be driving down the road blindfolded. An unbalanced nervous system goes into what is referred to as a state of dysregulation. Short bursts of dysregulation are normal. Longer, extended periods of dysregulation often go hand in hand with symptoms of anxiety and depression. To understand the state of our mental health is to understand our nervous system. To better understand our mental health, it can be beneficial to have a better picture of their connection to each other.

Trauma and The Nervous System

The nervous system and trauma share an intimate connection. To put it simply, trauma is our body’s response to a traumatic event that overwhelms our ability to cope. As a handy safety mechanism, when we’re put in a situation of distress, our nervous system activates fight, flight, or freeze. When we’re in a state of danger, this automatic response is rather convenient. It moves faster than we can think and gets us out of bad situations. However, if trauma from an event goes unaddressed and unresolved, it gets stored in the body and causes all sorts of problems.

Depending on severity, unaddressed trauma can turn into a mental health crisis. On the plus side, understanding the basic function of our nervous system can help us to process trauma and get to the root of a mental health issue. Trauma has the ability affect us in many ways and varies in severity depending on the event. Car accidents, physical abuse, and the death of a loved one are just a few of many traumatic events.  Very few people go through life without experiencing some form of trauma, physical or mental.

Signs of Nervous System Dysregulation

Trauma, stress, our environment and a handful of other possible factors can contribute to nervous system dysregulation. A dysregulated system over an extended period of time can begin to affect our mental health with symptoms such as anxiety, PTSD, depression, and more. Can you see why it would be important to know what it looks like when it’s in this state? Learning the signs that our nervous system might be dysregulated is essential if we want to find the proper tools to fix it. Below are some common signs of dysregulation, but it’s important to remember that it will look very different for everyone.

Regulating and Supporting Your Nervous System

There are two parts to our nervous system – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. You can think of the two parts like the gas and brake system of a car. The sympathetic is the gas, because it mobilizes. The parasympathetic is the brakes, because it immobilizes. When our nervous system is dysregulated, it means our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. Now that we know what it looks like when our system is out of whack, we need actionable steps that we can take to bring us back to baseline. 

Explore movement

Movement is natural medicine for our nervous system. If you struggle with exercise, it doesn’t have to consist of lifting and cardio. Dancing, yoga, and jumping on the trampoline are all valid forms of movement. It can be any form of movement that you enjoy. As long as you make it a point to get your heartrate up, you’ve done well.

Fast from your phone

Notifications and always being “on” overstimulates our nervous system, leaving us in a state of anxiety and restlessness. Make a goal of putting your phone away an hour before bed or better, anytime you find yourself overwhelmed with stress.

Spend time outdoors

Being out in nature is like one big exhale for our nervous system. Just 10-20 minutes is enough to do the trick. Make a regular practice of spending time outside. If that’s not possible, playing nature sounds have been proven to have the same calming effect.

Cold water therapy

This one is uncomfortable, but there’s a reason it’s so popular and widely discussed. There is no end in sight to the positive effects of cold-water therapy. Exposing yourself to cold temperatures will reduce anxiety, lessen pain, and improve your mood.

Deep breathing

Slow, long, and steady breathing activates our parasympathetic system. Breathwork is a convenient option that can be practiced from anywhere. Whether you’re overwhelmed at work or experiencing anxiety in a large crowd, a few minutes of intentional breathing can save the day.

Need Help?

Severe anxiety and depression affect our motivation to bring balance into our lives. If you live in a constant state of fight-or-flight, please reach out.  

Here at Dr. Messina and Associates, our compassionate team of professionals are qualified to help you at our Flower Mound, Texas, and Southlake, Texas, offices. Our Psychologists, Psychiatrists, and Counselors specialize in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychological testing, and medication management for a variety of emotional and behavioral health needs. All services are available in-person and online (telehealth). If you or a loved one are seeking help with mental health, we are here to help.

Author
Dr. Michael Messina

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