How to Reset Your Nervous System (and why you need to)
Ever feel like you’re a human doing rather than a human being? It feels like we’re busier than ever, habitually doing something followed by something else followed by something more, only to collapse at the end of the day exhausted. And then it’s time to start all over again the next day… Many of us rarely give ourselves a moment. Yet taking time for a reprieve during the day can help you reset your nervous system and recenter yourself for a better day.
Our Stress-Filled Days
Today, much of society seems to tell us that what’s most important is increasing productivity. We need to drive to accomplish more and more. I know I’ve internalized that message and can feel uncomfortable if not working or not getting through all of the projects on my to-do list in a day. After all, we’ve been taught that sitting “idle” is only for the unambitious or lazy.
For many, being stressed out and keyed up is just part of life—it may even be part of your identity. It’s how you get through the day and how you get s&*! done. And if you don’t feel too busy and stressed, you might even feel like something’s not quite right.
Yet often feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed isn’t normal. It’s your body’s way of sharing an important message: something is off and your nervous system may be out of balance.
Other symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system include:
- Difficulty focusing
- Finding it challenging to regulate emotions
- Sleep disturbances
- Digestive issues
- Unexplained body aches
- Racing heart or pressured breathing
It is in those moments when we need to step back, relax, and reset. Even just a minute or two can provide the resilience we need. Sitting idle has even been shown to help reset your nervous system and relieve stress.
The Role of Your Nervous System
By nature, our bodies are designed to be in the mode of rest and digest most of the time. We’re only supposed to be in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode—when the sympathetic nervous system is activated and at high alert—for short bursts. This can happen from slamming on the breaks to avoid an accident, unexpectedly running into an ex, or when startled on a hike by a wild animal, even if it’s just a bird taking flight.
The nervous system can also get out of balanced due to:
- Poor sleep
- Traumatic events, even those you see on the news rather than experience directly
- Relationship or work conflicts (e.g., social rejection)
- Anxiety or depression
- And feeling a lack of control, which can lead to difficult-to-manage frustration.
You may feel angry or truly scared (fight) or feel anxious and overthink the situation (flight). Other common responses include shutting down or dissociating (freeze) or feeling overwhelmed and finding yourself acting out co-dependent behaviors (fawn).
Once the threat is outrun or overcome, the nervous system is designed to relax, reset, and return to baseline. This allows the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems to rebalance, so they can get back to their regulatory jobs, including digesting and metabolizing food and maintaining heart rate and blood pressure.
In other words, we aren’t designed to be chronically driven or stressed. In fact, our bodies have a dopamine reward system designed to soothe us with hormones like oxytocin and the ventral vagus nerve. This allows us to connect with feelings of calm, care, safety, and kindness. It allows us to just be.
That doesn’t, however, mean it’s always easy. Calming down can take a few minutes or several days. Or, we may be chronically amped up and find it difficult to ever truly relax and reset.
Coming Into Balance
Even when we are faced with stressful situations—from impending deadlines to road rage to financial fears to real threats to life like a near-miss traffic accident—our nervous systems are created to reset. If you watch an animal in the wild, such as a bunny being chased by a cat or cayote, you might see the animal literally “shakes it off” once it gets away. This is their natural way to relieve stress or trauma and get back to just being a bunny again. And it’s very common in the animal kingdom. You may have even seen your own cat or dog shiver after a recent scare or stressful situation. It’s also a great way to reset the nervous system for humans.
Learning to let go of these stressors and reset your nervous system is vital. Remaining in fight or flight not only doesn’t help us become more productive, it accelerates the adrenal glands, boosts cortisol, and throws off hormonal balance, which can then hasten the aging process and increase the risk of weight gain and disease.
How to Reset Your Nervous System
Fortunately, even if you have been going through a stressful time recently, it is possible to reset your nervous system and return to balance. Here are some of the most effective methods:
1. Just Breathe: Deep, full, slow, and steady breaths in and out tell the parasympathetic nervous system that it’s time to relax and reset. Taking a few minutes throughout the day to breathe can also decrease anxiety, fear, a racing heart and thoughts to directly impact physical, mental, and emotional health. Especially if you notice you are breathing shallowly—i.e., only in the chest—take a long, slow deep breath now, filling the belly as well as the lungs.
You can also try box breathing where you take in a deep breath for four counts, hold it for four counts, exhale for four counts, and pause for four counts. Repeat for up to 10 rounds. Other breathing techniques, such as alternate nostril breathing, pursed lip breathing, and 4-7-8 breathing, can also be effective.
You can set aside time to meditate or practice yoga with breathwork. You can also take a deep breath throughout the day, such as every time you look at a clock or transition from one task to the next. Either way, the deep breathing has even been shown to promote life and health span and may also improve working memory and other cognitive functioning. 1, 2
2. Take a 30- to 90-Second Break: Especially if you’re stressed in the moment (due to an event, conversation, or issue), step away for 30 to 90 seconds to give your mind and body a chance to adjust to and process the information. Holding off on responding even for this brief amount of time can help you get back to a calmer neurophysiological state. 3 – 5
Again, it can help to breathe deeply, filling up your entire ribcage and exhaling strongly for a few breaths. It can also help to do something physical, such as jumping jacks, stretching, or shaking it off. If your environment allows, you could even yell out loud to release frustration.
3. Tapping: Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as tapping, is a type of acupressure that many people have found helps them relax to potentially reset the nervous system. This technique was developed by Gary Craig and can be done just about anywhere to help release strong or painful emotions, including anxiety and depression, PTSD, chronic pain, and specific issues. 6 – 11
To perform, you’ll tap gently but firmly with your fingertips on several of the body’s energy meridian points (as found in Chinese medicine). To start tapping, follow these steps:
- Name (i.e., think about) the issue you’re addressing—focus on just one thing at a time.
- Rank the intensity of the stress or emotion on a scale of 0 to 10 with 10 being the absolute worst.
- Create a reminder phrase to repeat as you tap and start tapping with two to three fingertips on the outside fleshy part of the opposite hand (on what’s called the karate chop point). An example phrase might be something like, “Even though I feel so stressed by the conversation with my spouse, I deeply and completely love and accept myself.” (This phrase can change depending on the situation and the acceptance, forgiveness, or other positive emotion you can allow for yourself in the moment.)
- As you repeat the phrase, tap on:
- The top of the head, directly in the center
- Inside of the eyebrow, just to the side and above the top of the nose
- On the bone on the outside corner of the eye
- On the bone directly under the center of the eye
- Between the tip of the nose and upper lip
- On the jawbone at the center of the chin
- On the top of the collarbone where the breast bone and rib meet
- Under the armpit, right around where a bra would hit.
- Run through the tapping sequence around five or so times, hitting each point.
- Rank the intensity one more time on the scale of 0 to 10.
- Repeat the process until you have reached a 0 intensity.
You can also find videos and apps that guide you through the entire process.
4. Chill Out: Cold exposure, such as stepping into a cold shower or plunging into a cold bath, can help calm the vagus nerve to quickly return to balance. According to research, as the body adjusts to the cold, the stress response decreases. 12 While you can look for where to take a cold plunge, it’s likely most convenient to just jump into a cold shower at home. If you’re out and about and this technique works well for you, you can also try splashing cold water on your face to help cool your emotions and reset your nervous system.
5. Turn Up the Heat: On the opposite spectrum, getting warm can also help soothe an overstimulated nervous system. You can choose a hot sauna or steam room, a warm bath, or heating pads, all of which have been shown to have benefits from reducing anxiety to supporting healthy levels of inflammation. 13, 14
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6. Lift It: Proprioceptive input—i.e., adding weight—has been shown to produce a calming effect on the nervous system. One of the easiest ways to do so in modern life is to hit the gym. Yep, lifting weights improves body awareness and provides positive proprioceptive feedback. 15, 16 You can push iron, use resistance bands, or even enjoy bodyweight exercises as you exercise to help build your body and calm your mind at the same time.
7. Add Weight: If something is weighing you down, it might be time to weigh yourself down. That is, grab a weighted blanket that provides around 10% of your body weight. Yes, research has found that this isn’t just a trend—it can actually help you relax and reset and may help you get a better night’s sleep, though more research is needed. 17 – 19
8. Cuddle Up: Another proven way to help reduce stress and anxiety is by increasing the release of the hormone oxytocin. This feel-good hormone, also known as the cuddle hormone, is released when you cuddle with a loved one. This can be your partner, your child, or even a pet. Cuddles and hugs have also been shown to lower levels of cortisol. 20, 21
9. Take a Hike: Whether you choose a slow, mindful walk through the forest (aka forest bathing) or a more vigorous hike that gets your heart pounding, the fresh air and natural surroundings are sure ways to melt away stress and reset the nervous system. For an even greater connection with the earth, slip off your shoes and socks and stand with your bare feet directly on the dirt, grass, or rocks to ground.
Reset Your Nervous System: A Wrap-Up
The nervous system is your body’s command central. It guides activities from breathing and seeing to thoughts and emotions to determining how real threats are and triggering the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response.
Modern life can be a lot—too much at times. From family obligations to workplace deadlines to relationship issues to current events, it can feel like a firehose of stress. Taking steps to practice relaxation can help you restore balance and help reset your nervous system for better mental and physical health, including improved:
- Brain health
- Emotional health
- Attention span
- Performance at home and work
- Blood pressure
- And so much more.