Health / Wellbeing

Feeling burnt out? Your nervous system might be dysregulated

daisy edgar jones as Marianne Sheridan in normal people lying on a mustard coach looking sad

At the end of last year, the cumulative effects of a stressful few months finally caught up to me. I was bereft of energy and enthusiasm. My mind was a scattered wasteland, barely able to hold onto a thought. I was, as they say, out of sorts.

The most alarming symptom was the inability to laugh. A friend would say something riotous and the best I could offer was a smirk. (Or worse, the dreaded “that’s so funny” in lieu of a more appropriate auditory display of appreciation). I could handle the steady swirl of anxiety collecting in the pit of my stomach, but far be it from me to deny friends the proper remuneration for a good joke. I took the latter complaint to Google and learnt that no, I wasn’t depressed (yet), my nervous system was simply on the fritz.

As tends to be the way with cognitive bias and the mind-reading powers of the algorithm, once I suspected my nervous system was dysregulated, I began to see terms like ‘nervous system reset’ and ‘vagus nerve stimulation’ everywhere. Nervous system regulation was also increasingly cropping up in conversations with friends. I wasn’t the only one operating on a steady diet of overwhelm, it seemed.

What is nervous system dysregulation?

According to Dr. Linnea Passaler, health professional and author of Heal Your Nervous System, ‘dysregulation’ is an umbrella term for a nervous system that isn’t able to function properly due to an inability to adapt to stresses and maintain flexibility. “This can occur as a result of trauma, chronic stressors, or a combination of both and leads to an inability to regulate emotions and experiences,” she says. “Being in our body may feel painful, uncomfortable, or even terrifying. Trauma, depression, burnout, illness, and chronic pain all stem from an overactive nervous system.”

The autonomic nervous system is made of two parts: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). Borrowing a car analogy from this Harvard Health study, the sympathetic nervous system operates like an accelerator, while the parasympathetic nervous system functions as a brake. Dysregulation comes about when we’re unable to find a way to pump the brakes on stress.

“When faced with urgent or stressful situations, our bodies are equipped to help us survive these ordeals,” says Dr. Passaler. “Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and activates the fight-or-flight response. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline surge to raise heart rate, breathing speed, and blood pressure levels.”

In theory, this is a good thing—it forces us into action to protect ourselves or prepare for something bad—but only when such a response is warranted (being chased by a lion) and less so when it’s in reaction to non-life-threatening modern stressors (looming work deadlines). When our nervous system is out of balance, the sympathetic nervous system becomes over dominant, leading our parasympathetic nervous system—which is responsible for things like relaxation and recovery, digestion, immune response, and tissue repair—to fall by the wayside.

“Nervous system regulation is the ability to move flexibly between different states of arousal in response to stressors. This means that when we encounter a change in our environment, like a stressful situation, we can adapt so that we are not overwhelmed. It also means we completely recover after the stressor has been removed,” says Dr. Passaler, shining light on why I may have been unable to relax enough to lol while in a state of dysregulation. “This ability to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances gives us a sense of agency; it makes us feel confident and secure because we can understand and navigate the world in the ways we choose.”

How do I bring myself back into balance?

The first port of call on my journey towards a balanced nervous system was to check in with Yianna Velos, co-founder of Golden Groves and my go-to source for wellness advice online. Velos’ wisdom belies her years — her Instagram and Substack newsletter are overflowing repositories of wellness tips amassed from years of prioritising her health and wellbeing. Wellness has always played a huge role in her life, and “became even more important when [her] mum, who was “healthy” by society’s standard, fell victim to an aggressive form of breast cancer five years ago.”

Through observing her mum’s holistic approach to healing, Velos realised that we are all a compilation of our habits. “You can influence your genetic composition through how you eat, breathe, think and live your life,” she says. “When you come to this realisation, you feel incredibly empowered because you're cognisant that your human experience is completely up to you to design. When I tragically lost my mum to breast cancer just over a year ago, I felt called to share my perspective on health and wellness online… I wanted people who felt lost and overwhelmed by the health and wellness space to have an unbiased voice of reason.”

Like a lot of us, Velos experienced first-hand the negative effects of an out-of-whack nervous system during the pandemic. “During COVID-19, my nervous system especially suffered as I was experiencing a lot of stress in my work, relationships, and environment. It wreaked havoc on my body — from suffering from hormonal acne to issues with my digestion and feelings of anxiety,” she explains.

After witnessing these physical manifestations play out, Velos wrote down a list of stressors and ways she could overcome them in her Notes app.

“I'm aware that it's impossible to remove all negative stress, but we do have the power to control what we can,” she explains. “I adopted an anti-inflammatory diet and had hard conversations to resolve personal conflicts and set boundaries. I learnt to accept myself for where I was at, and started working on things that excited me, such as my olive oil business, which provided me with a positive creative outlet from my corporate job. I started to leave my phone at home and go for walks after dinner with friends and family so I could switch off, and I also started taking some supplements (like ashwagandha) to support my hormones and feel more relaxed.”

Can I reset my nervous system?

Next on the list (and a most agreeable task) was signing up for a class at the Amsterdam-based wellness centre, Oracley. Even reading the list of classes, with names like ‘Moon Healing’ and ‘Reiki Yoga’, felt like being cocooned. After much deliberation, I decided the most fitting maiden voyage to embark on was the ‘Nervous System Rest’ class.

On entrance, I’m asked how I’m feeling both mentally and emotionally in gentle dulcet tones befitting of the calming dimly-lit space.

“Um, okay?” I half-say, half-question, horizontally waving my palm up and down, in the universal so-so motion, to further illustrate my point. Speaking about negative emotions has never been a strong point, but luckily for me, we’re not here to talk about our feelings. We’re here to shake, groan, and stretch them all out.

The air is thick with anxiety at the start of class—it’s designed specifically with burnt out people in mind, after all—but over the course of 90 minutes, it dissipates like clouds parting in the sky. We start by shaking out all the bad vibes we’ve been squirrelling deep in the crevices of our bodies, mimicking the de-stress response of animals after escaping a life-threatening event. We throw our limbs around the room. We exhale with reckless abandon. We cry. Then we retire to our “fluffy cloud” beds and move through a series of melt-y exercises and meditations, before floating out of the room.

“The Nervous System Reset class is designed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and suppress the sympathetic nervous system,” says Oracley Founder, Amy Maxwell. “We combine methods that support nervous system recovery, including restorative yoga, gentle breathing exercises, EFT tapping and meditation. This combination can be a powerful and supportive practice to come back to, alongside other ongoing treatments and therapeutic support systems.”

Prior to opening the studio, Maxwell had found in corporate marketing the ideal environment for her over-achieving nature. Until one day it wasn’t. “I used to push my mind and body to the absolute limit, constantly burning the candle at both ends,” she says. “Then I reached a point of exhaustion and was on the brink of a serious burnout. It was a huge wakeup call for me. I realised that I was so disassociated from my body, and that, like a lot of us, I was a victim to a society that celebrates the hustle culture, but at what cost?”

How to regulate our nervous system

To regulate our nervous system, we need to consciously activate our parasympathetic nervous system. I’m both happy and a little annoyed to report that most of the advice we’re given and routinely ignore—like no phones before bed, prioritising rest, mindful breathing etc—actually works. Below, some tried-and-tested tips…

Recognition is the first step

“Just over a year ago, I experienced severe burn out and things that usually filled up my cup weren't giving me my usual boost of serotonin,” says Velos. “It wasn't until my sister suggested that perhaps I was burnt out that I recognised it in myself. If you are at this point, congratulations, because this is one of the best things that happened to me! Burnout made me realise I was spiritually and emotionally exhausted because I wasn't giving oxygen to the candle that lit me from within. Burnout leads to breakthroughs.”

Take a walk

Nothing alleviates stress for me quite like a good stretch of the legs in the company of a reliably great podcast. Walking laps around the park has gotten me through my darkest hours, from breakups to existential wobbles, as if the simple motion of putting one foot in front of the other is a signal to my brain that life goes on. It’s especially effective in nature, but any old path will do.

Velos agrees. “I love going for a long walk and listening to a book or podcast with a thought leader in the wellness space. I particularly love listening to Melissa Wood-Tepperberg of MWH. She inspires me to trust the process and let go of anything that doesn't serve me,” she says.

Breathe, baby, breathe

Ancient wisdom knows it, science knows it, Blu Cantrell knows it: the best way to move through stress is to Let. It. Breathe.

Mindful breathing is a key tool in any nervous system regulation arsenal—it immediately engages the parasympathetic nervous system and instantly brings calm. “If I'm caught in a stress response loop then I try to bring myself back into regulation, by stopping what I'm doing and coming into effective deep breathing exercises,” agrees Maxwell.

Box breathing is a good place to start. As the name suggests, it’s using your breathing to create a square: inhale to the count of four, hold your breath for four, exhale to four, and then count to four before breathing in again.

Hum breathing, where you take a deep breath in through your nose and then hum as you exhale until all the air has left your lungs, specifically activates the vagus nerve. This is the largest nerve in our bodies and the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for things like controlling the immune system and digestion. The nerve runs through the vocal cords, meaning it’s receptive to vibrations made when we sing or hum. Consciously activating it—whether through hum breathing or terrible renditions of Rihanna’s Diamonds—helps to turn our internal alarm system off. (As Velos points out, you can also activate your vagus nerve by massaging your stomach, if that’s more your style).

Take a (Gong) bath

My second class at Oracley was a gong bath. It was pure bliss. I was asleep in minutes. “Sound Healing can be a beautiful way to come back to your senses, as the vibrations can reach you in such a connective way through your physical, energetic, mental and emotional bodies,” says Maxwell. “Sound Healing also works to move our brainwaves to a slower state from Beta into Theta, so shifting from the conscious to subconscious mind, which for some can bring such a sense of mental spaciousness and clarity after a session.”

Train smarter, not harder

In the past, I’ve been guilty of seeing low-intensity exercise classes as a ‘waste’ of my ClassPass points, believing HIIT and spin to be a better return on investment. According to Maxwell, though, it’s all about finding balance. “I’m a huge fan of HIIT workouts, but what they’re doing is the opposite of regulating our nervous system — they spike our cortisol levels and activate the sympathetic part of our nervous system. So, if we're constantly on the literal treadmill of high intensity, our body doesn't have time to recalibrate and over time this is impacting our nervous system’s ability to self-regulate,” she says.

Try incorporating more gentle forms of exercise like yoga, Pilates, barre, and swimming into your workout routine, too.

Be kind to yourself

“I feel the calmest when I am trusting my gut,” says Velos. “You can eat the cleanest diet, exercise every day, get 8+ hours of sleep each night, but if your thoughts aren't kind and constructive, you won't feel calm… Once you find peace in yourself and accept what you can't control, you'll focus on what you can and will find more peace in yourself and your life.”

Do nothing

Rest feels radical in our productivity-obsessed society that demands we always be on. Not to mention uncomfortable for those of us who are accustomed to, and in ways thrive on, chaos. (Me). “There is so much scientific evidence now to support how rest contributes to our wellbeing. Our classes are spent doing almost nothing; being guided through slowing down and getting to know yourself on a deep level by just simply 'being',” says Maxwell. “When we slow down, we realise there is so much that is still moving internally, but perhaps we hadn't taken the time to meet ourselves fully when we're in constant motion.”

See a therapist

I will never not espouse the life-changing benefits of therapy. From stress management and emotional regulation to trauma recovery, speaking with a trusted therapist can help to address and fix any underlying causes of a dysregulated nervous system.


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