Neuroscience and mental health: strategies to help you regulate your nervous system
This is the second part of a series about how we can use findings from neuroscience to help us manage stress and other challenges in our daily and professional lives. It includes a guide to different nervous system states, introduces the 'window of tolerance', and offers strategies to help you regulate your nervous system.
In part one of this series How the field of neuroscience can help us understand and enhance our mental health and wellbeing we introduced you to the nervous system; the bodily system, including the brain, that controls all our reactions, responses, and behaviours.
We focused on the role of the autonomic nervous system and the way the sympathetic branch (activating) and parasympathetic branch (calming) work in tandem, linking the brain and body, and influencing our wellbeing and effective functioning.
Guide to our autonomic nervous system states
In part one we described the two branches of our autonomic nervous system using the metaphor of a car.
Sympathetic branch activation
The sympathetic nervous system state is like the accelerator revving up the engine. It activates a high energy state in us. However, if we stay in this state for too long we can put strain on ourselves and can eventually move into an over activated state called hyperarousal.
- Activation can look like: energised, focused, ready for action
- Dysregulation can look like: shallow breathing, agitation, trouble focusing, irritability, anger, tense muscles, difficulty sleeping
- Hyperarousal can look like: overwhelm, panic, urge to fight or flee, hypervigilance, flashbacks
Parasympathetic branch activation
The parasympathetic nervous system state is like the braking action in a car, slowing down the engine and stopping. It activates a low energy state in us. This can be calming and energy conserving but can also act as an emergency brake which can put us into a shutdown state called hypoarousal.
- Slowing down can look like: slowing heart and breathing rate, sense of calm and relaxation
- Dysregulation can look like: trouble concentrating, lack of enjoyment, sleepy, numb, foggy brain, disengaged
- Hypoarousal can look like: shutting down, strong need to withdraw, detachment, dread, freeze, dissociation
Throughout the day each of us move between these nervous system states, mostly outside of our awareness. Whilst some dysregulation is normal as we respond to the challenges and needs of our environment if we spend too long at the extreme end of either state it can negatively impact our physical and mental health. There is a healthy range around the middle of this spectrum which is called ‘the window of tolerance’.
Introducing the window of tolerance
The window of tolerance is a term coined by Daniel J Siegel, a US clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the United States, to describe the zone of arousal (physical/emotional) in which we each can function optimally in our day-to-day lives. Inside our window of tolerance we can take in information from our environment and respond to it without completely withdrawing or feeling overwhelmed.
Our window of tolerance is unique to each of us and will vary according to the events and circumstances we are experiencing. Our window of tolerance might be narrow which means we get easily dysregulated and move more quickly to the extreme ends of the spectrum or it might be wide which means we can tolerate some dysregulation and can then return quite quickly to a settled state.
Our window of tolerance can change from day to day, or even moment to moment. For example, feeling tired, hungry, or sick often narrows our window. Bear in mind that a situation that slams our own window shut might not affect someone else in the same way.
For instance, whilst one person might easily tolerate a raised voice in conflict, another person could feel quickly derailed by raised voices to the point that they have the urge to walk away or respond with a raised voice themselves.
One person might be fine switching off during a bout of illness, whilst another person might find they can’t tolerate the forced inactivity and extreme fatigue and they slip into a deeper state of depression and detachment.
When we are able to pay attention to our own particular pattern of dysregulation then we can spot the warning signs, which often show up as sensations in our bodies, indicating that it is time to use strategies to bring us back into our window of tolerance or make other adjustments in our lives.
Strategies to regulate your nervous system and expand your window of tolerance
Awareness is the first step. When we can get curious and notice what the stressor is and our reaction to it; naming the sensations in our body and linking them to a nervous system state, this helps us to broaden our window of tolerance.
Awareness also re-activates the part of our brain responsible for thinking, decision making and planning (the prefrontal cortex), which can get hijacked by the fear centre in our brain (the amygdala) when we are responding to a perceived threat or stressor in the day.
Replacing judgement with curiosity
We often blame ourselves for our responses; judging our stress responses as signs of weakness and that we need to exercise mind over matter and ‘get over it’. However, the way we react to situations in our daily lives is not only about the current stressors but also due to how we learnt to respond to stressful situations growing up. Adverse events in early childhood and throughout our lives shape our brains and nervous system responses, which in turn affect the size of our window of tolerance.
If we can get interested in our responses (not judging them as good or bad) then we will discover that they are automatic, self protecting and laid down since we were young. This is the start of developing compassion for ourselves rather than blame, shame and self-criticism.
Creating your own toolkit
When stressors pile up one after another or we experience a major life challenge our window might close. Our ability to cope shrinks and seemingly minor events can prompt a reaction that appears disproportionate to the situation. It is then helpful to have a toolkit of strategies to support us. There is no magic formula, it requires a degree of experimentation and practice to find the strategies that work specifically for you.
Bringing the activation down
When your sympathetic state is activated, you might notice you are holding your breath, feeling tension in your muscles, having feelings of anxiety and fear. These are signs to reduce the activation in your body. For example:
- Pause and take a moment out – orient to your surroundings, engage each of your senses, notice your posture and feel your feet on the ground.
- Slow down and deepen your breath – take a longer exhale. It brings more oxygen in and reduces cortisol production. Especially helpful for panic attacks.
- Move your body – any kind of activity that gets you out of your head and into your body – that could be pacing, vigorous exercise or yoga.
- Write it down – this can help you externalize thoughts and feelings and gain perspective on what you’re experiencing.
Raising your energy
If you notice that your energy has dropped; you might feel lethargic, disconnected, depressed, foggy brained or numb. These are signs to activate the energy in your body. For example:
- Engage your senses - cooking, eating crunchy foods, enlivening music, go outside, hold an ice cube in your hand.
- Move your body - any physical activity that increases your heart rate and gets your body moving; something challenging like balancing will also bring you into the present moment because it requires your attention.
- Change your posture – you might be slumping over your desk; instead lengthen your spine.
We can all have moments that push us outside of our window of tolerance. In these moments we can feel very alone. It can be helpful to have a supportive conversation with a friend, family member or colleague in which we share our experience and feel listened to. However, if we find ourselves stuck then we might need professional support to understand the patterns of our responses, the personal history and tendencies that are contributing to those difficulties and have a confidential space to learn new strategies for coping.
Neuroscience and psychotherapy research confirm that building resilience and broadening our window of tolerance occur best through the safety and supportive input of another person rather than expecting ourselves to master these skills on our own.
How we can harness our nervous system states in ways that are beneficial at work
We can harness our energy more effectively at work if we are aware of what nervous system state we are in.
When we are activated within our window of tolerance we might:
- Use high levels of energy to generate enthusiasm and galvanise our team/colleagues
- Use our bursts of adrenaline to complete an urgent task or tackle that long to do list
When we are in a calmer and quiet state within our window of tolerance we might:
- Take time to think reflectively about an issue and make a plan for a way forward;
- Support and listen to others and give them the space to share their own experience
It takes ongoing practice and patience to become aware of our nervous system states and find strategies to expand our window of tolerance; just like building up strength in our muscles.
If you are interested in putting it into practice we will be running a practical workshop, in collaboration with LawCare, on the topics discussed in this article series, in early 2024. We will be posting further details on the LawCare website later in the year.