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Nervous System Dysregulation: What it is. How to heal it.

Are you feeling more irritable than normal or simply not yourself? Chances are, you are one of many people who are suffering from a dysregulated nervous system right now. Yep, I too “accidentally” slipped into dysregulation this summer, but I am happy to share how I healed my nervous system and how you can too. 


If you are Highly Sensitive, you are more likely to slide into dysregulation


As someone who is a proud Highly Sensitive Person, I am well aware that I have a much more active nervous system. This “superhuman” system can be a blessing and a curse, and can profoundly influence my day-to-day life more than a non-HSP nervous system. 


I love it…until I don’t– which recently happened… 


What a lot of HSPs (and non-HSPs) may not know is: the same nervous system that gives immense pleasure eating Nutella gelato (OMG!) can very easily slide into dysregulation given enough conditions (see below). 


And the worst part is: you don’t always recognize dysregulation because the symptoms mimic a lot of other conditions (!). But if you are dysregulated, the phrase I think you will understand the most is: “I suddenly don’t remember who I am”.


Even for me, even after years of teaching workshops on how to be embodied, I suddenly couldn’t even remember I had a body (!), let alone how to use it: so that is when one realizes it's not the mind, but our nervous system that is out of order.   


Here is what Nervous System Dysregulation (NSD) feels like: 


  • Feeling Overwhelmed and Overstimulated Easily (Mood Swings!)

  • Becoming Irritable and Overreacting to Stimuli (Even MORE Sensitive)

  • Energy Slumps and Cravings for Sugar and Caffeine (Tired and Wired)

  • Poor Sleep, Digestion, and Body Regulation (Inability to “Human”)

  • Body Aches (‘Was I Hit by a Bus?’)


This was me…

Personally, six months ago I kept experiencing ‘run-of-the-mill’ upsets (my toddler would hit me, I would spill milk, bump into a cabinet, etc.) and instead of pulling a Taylor Swift and being able to “Shake It Off”, I would get incredibly frustrated and irritable for upwards of ten + minutes, and either have to cry, scream, or go lay down to calm down. 


If you know me: that.is.not.me!


For context, my nervous system was reacting to the following: in only a 3 month span, I had a car accident, a hectic international trip, a cross-country move, and the stress of setting up a house/life in a new city. My lovely (and active!) nervous system took its job very seriously, and kept me on high-alert that whole time…but then didn’t get the memo to calm the F@#$ down.  


A weird part of my NSD was I still felt “happy” in between my high-irritability episodes: my thoughts weren’t really negative, but the more upsets I had (and there were dozens during the day), I started to think I was going “crazy” because I couldn’t calm down. And then things spiraled… and before I knew it, my mind/body basically screamed “OUT OF ORDER” and I simply stopped functioning properly.  


The Zones of YOUR Nervous System

In her fabulous book “Heal Your Nervous System” Dr. Linnea Passaler color codes our nervous system into 5 color zones of regulation. 


Blue: Regenerative state: Calm, relaxed and deep rest 

Green: Flow state: Focused, but at ease

Yellow: Treadmill state: Alert, cognitive stress, but increased frustration

Red: Acute Stress state: High Alert, spikes in adrenaline, no focus, fight-or-flight response

Purple: Emergency Freeze: Feeling paralyzed, unable to think or respond to threat


NSD is affecting the entire globe right now because the collective, complex trauma we all shared during the pandemic our nervous systems flew into the yellow and red zones like it’s their full time job and no one told them they can take their vacation days in the blue and green zones already. 


So, if you are there now: you are definitely not alone…


OK, so HOW do I HEAL my Nervous System?


The good news is: it’s totally possible to heal your nervous system and live (not just vacation) in the blue and green zones again. You can be YOU again and regulate yourself with ease and joy. 


The less good news: in a world that loves instant gratification, this will not happen overnight. There are some helpful actions to take the edge off, but real healing takes weeks or months instead. 


But I promise you: each week and month will feel better than the last.


The answer to HOW is not a single answer, but a holistic approach. And before you freak out and feel like this is yet ANOTHER thing to put on your to-do list (!), please remember all healing journeys bring you more than just health in the end.  


Dr. Passaler’s 5 stages of Healing…and how I used them this year


Funnily, I actually found Dr. Linnea Passaler’s work AFTER my own journey (!) but, I love it so much, I’ll include some of her advice on how to heal your nervous system and alongside her tips, I will share what I did to heal myself. 


These stages are not necessarily linear, but are interwoven, though you will still know when you are in each one. You can do most of this healing alone, but you’ll need some experts (hello!) in certain stages if you want your healing to stick. 


Also remember: Small actions, many times. Big actions, one at a time. You can do this. 



Stage 1: Awareness

You can’t heal a nervous system if you don’t even know you have one. 


So the first stage is recognizing the difference between your thoughts, emotions and body. Your nervous system lives in your body, but a lot of us barely even remember we have one.  


So, in this stage you are becoming aware of your stressors/triggers and how they affect you somatically. Some of your triggers are environmental (toddler headbutts are mine!) and some are mental (worries about upcoming deadlines)-- but all of them will affect your body’s responses. 


Here, pay attention to where your responses live in your body. This is NOT hypervigilance, but instead a form of compassionate inquiry of what is happening to you before/during dysregulation. 

 

How I used this stage:

I learned what annoyed me: (spoiler alert: it was everything). 


I tracked my triggers like a gorilla that escaped the zoo. And it turned out: every f@#$ing thing was a trigger: from the way my husband ate potato chips (OMG!), to my kids’ whining (SHUT IT!), even the weather (SO HOT)! The somatic reactions I had to these were a flushed face, a burst of adrenaline, a hot chest, shallow breathing and tense jaw. I also wanted to swear A F@#$ING LOT. :)


And because my body was constantly reacting, it felt like a full time job to not lose my s#%@. I was living in the yellow and red states and not sleeping much, so I wasn’t able to reach the restorative blue state, and thus constantly on high alert. 


I did pick up on the main pattern to my triggers as anything that was out of my control (OMG chew quieter!) and when I realized just how many things I have been trying to control (#everything), this helped me give myself a lot more grace to “let go” in the next stages.   

Stage 2: Regulation

To heal your nervous system, you must feel safe in your body. 


After recognizing you have a nervous system, the next step is to feel safe within it. Feeling safe again lets you be the driver of your body, instead of the passenger. Taking back this “control” of your body will allow you to create a safe container for your nervous system to relax in. Remember, it thinks it has been working for you by keeping you ‘safe’, but it took its job waaaay too seriously, so we need to give it a better job: and the keyword here is PLEASURE.


This stage needs you to add bodily pleasure in all forms to remind your nervous system you’ve got its back, so it can take a bit of a break. 


How I used this stage: 

I spoiled myself rotten. 


Spoiling yourself may seem like an unnecessary luxury, but you have to lovingly convince your nervous system that you are on the same team for it to work with you again. (If you “speak chakras” you have to feel safe in your root chakra (red) to access the pleasure center of your sacral chakra (orange) in this stage). 


I “seduced myself” by giving my body all the things it likes: soft blankets, lots of sun, good food, firm hugs, gentle touch, loud music, warm baths, showers, and lots of naps. 


Once I felt more safe in my body, it started to open up and remember other enjoyable activities, so I gave it tastes of as much as I could: stretching, massages, swimming, hiking, biking, dancing, and yep you guessed it: plenty of sex (luckily God gifted Highly Sensitive People with better orgasms to make up for our struggles!).


You are retraining your body’s neural pathways to know it is capable of producing pleasure, not only discomfort, so the more pleasure the better. 


Simply moving my body calmed my nervous system down a lot– my muscles relaxed (no more sore jaw), my breathing slowed, sleeping improved, less aches and pains. It wasn’t all “doing” though, I had lots of “being” as well: being present for my kids (without my phone), laughing with my husband, sitting still in the sun: all of these brought me back to the green zone. But in order to maintain this, you need a bit of help.  


Stage 3: Restoration

This is where you go deep, but with the help of experts. 


Up until now, your nervous system has been running on whatever you were giving it, and adapting as needed. So if you’ve been giving it a lot of “garbage” (accidentally or purposely), you need to take out the trash to clean up its fuel. 


Here is where you work with any of the experts who can help you clean your diet, make better lifestyle choices, heal your bones/muscles, unblock stuck energy/emotions, and/or process trauma that has been keeping you dysregulated.  


No matter how resilient you have been in the past, everyone (me included!) needs help seeing their blind spots, so please work with experts here! You won’t become reliant on anyone if you understand they are only part of your journey. 


How I used this stage:

I assembled a super-team of experts. 


Look, this stage can be a lot: a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of “work” – but it is worth connecting with those who can help you see a healed version of you before you can. 


At the beginning of my journey, I threw a wide net: a massage therapist to calm down my tense muscles, an osteopath to adjust my diaphragm to breathe properly, a chiropractor to adjust my spine, a chakra healer to align my energy systems, and my own hypnotherapist to find unconscious blocks keeping me stuck. These all helped me a lot, but toward the end, I decided to stick with only three experts who specialized in getting me out of dysregulation (the links in this blog are for who I used in the St. Petersburg, Florida area). 


The team who walked this journey with me the longest:


A fantastic functional medicine doctor who helped me identify how my diet and lifestyle was affecting my mood (goodbye cookies and chugging coffee every hour) and who ran very specific blood tests that helped us fine-tune the supplements my body needed to stay in my optimal zones. 


A great physical therapist who helped me remember how to communicate with my body and move it in the ways that suit me and only me. The work with him corresponded with stage two of learning to feel safe again in my body to remember all the ways I used to love to move.  


A talented network spinal chiropractor who helped “entrain” my nervous system using the “spinal wave”, which connected my brain to my nerves, and completed the neural pathways I needed to stay regulated and flexible in my reactions. She’s a nervous-system alchemist. (A fantastic book that helped me understand what was happening to me during this process was called “The 12 Stages of Healing”.) 


*Now, I will admit: stage three is the hardest stage because as you begin to heal yourself, you will bring up a lot of “muck” that you have been avoiding. Let it surface and heal. That muck is the stored trauma that needs to come out to heal your nervous system. 


Personally, I had a lot of really emotional traumas resurface (which I did not anticipate :/), BUT because I was becoming more resilient and finally able to SEE them for what they were meant to teach me, releasing them felt much more do-able. Hypnotherapy helps with this stage a lot! 

Stage 4: Connection

You will want to re-establish a connection to people, places and things that make you feel great. 


Once your body feels safe and is running on clean fuels instead of garbage, it will want to reconnect with the outside world again. You will likely have better boundaries and a better ability to feel a part of something bigger than yourself, whether it be nature, communities, spirituality, creativity or more. 


These new connections help us remember we are stronger when we are interconnected and we become less likely to retreat or relapse into old ways of being that got us dysregulated originally. 


How I used this stage:

Reconnecting to joy. 


After feeling safe in my body, suddenly I remembered lots of other things that bring me joy and I started re-visiting them: traveling with friends, hiking in nature, watching live comedy, doing improv, hosting parties, playing games with my kids – everything was feeling playful and pleasurable again (in “chakra speak”: this is usually our when our sacral chakra reconnects to our solar plexus and heart chakra). 


It sounds like a lot of doing, but these activities helped me BE: FREE, FUN and LOVED. Connecting to communities that are built around silliness (like improv) helped me remember how to laugh. Connecting to source in nature reminded me of my interconnectedness with everything. Connecting with my deep-feeling friends reminded me of my sensitive-superpowers. Connecting with my kids reminded me how necessary playfulness is. 


I couldn’t have done these activities in stage one: they’d have felt like chores. Once you heal the “muck”, these become as essential as breathing. 


Stage 5: Expansion

Self-trust becomes so strong that you will feel capable to take on stressors without getting dysregulated. Life becomes meaningful and purposeful again. 


Once you are able to feel safe, your wounds feel healed, and you connect to more than yourself, a sense of purpose will return and you will want to continue to share your gifts with others. 


Curiosity and courage become central to your life, bringing back hope and excitement. 


How I used this stage:

Sharing my story. 


Like every great Hero’s Journey, the last stage of healing is always: sharing your story. I am in this stage now as I share my experiences on this blog and with all my clients. :)


I am also sharing self-care practices through local and online workshops and sessions: like moving your body: by hosting “Dance in the Dark”: a free-dance session where you get to move to your own rhythm. Laughter: Comedy workshops that teach us how to see the humor in our suffering. Connecting with nature: offering “Walk-n-Talk” coaching sessions with my clients to both move our bodies. 


(In chakra speak, the last stage is when our solar plexus and heart chakras connect with our throat, third eye and crown chakras. Eventually, we feel balanced from our root to our crown– in alignment and healed.) 


Of course there is always more to the story, but…

Like any great journey, there are always other characters and lessons along the way. 


And in yours there will be too. 


But the most important aspect of Nervous System Dysregulation is that it is normal, and if you are in it right now: you can be healed. Give yourself time (mine took at least 4 months).


Identify your triggers. Remember your pleasures. Keep me in mind as an expert in stage three and reach out when you are ready to heal


To help you get started, I created a FREE “Healing-Kit” for you. Check it out, or some of my other FREEBIES here. 


With heart,

Dr. Katie


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