How to Regulate Your Nervous System : Therapist Tips

December 4, 2023

A few years ago I was meeting with a leadership team about how to implement some more mental health strategies into their company. One of the members of the team had actually seen a therapist at my practice before and wanted to flex some of the skills he had learned in therapy, which I loved. As we were talking about emotional literacy and the ability to name emotions, he blurted out how we were talking about "The Feeling Wheel." If you aren't familiar with this diagram, picture a large circle where the inner most layer (the hub of the wheel) lists of six emotions. Going out further from there, each of those six emotions expands into some more specific variations of those emotions. And one more concentric circle completes the emotion wheel with some even more specific language.

Back to the story. Another person on staff asked me to describe the feeling wheel and what the six core emotions at the hub of the wheel are. I explained they are joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. And by the way, if you've seen another variation that had eight or five and some of them are different than what I listed, that is totally fine. In our emotions course I know that Lauren teaches on eight emotions at the core and I'm not trying to start any arguments here.

Joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise.

The same person on staff replied back to me, "so much negativity!"

I think my response surprised them when I told them that I thought they were actually all good. That it is good to experience sadness and anger. They bring us gifts and inform us of our values. Disgust lets us know when we need to get away from something because of it's vile nature. Fear manages risk assessment. Joy and surprise are mostly fun so I won't justify those.

And the reason that I start here is because we often assume that the signs of a dysregulated nervous system are experiencing any of these so called negative emotions. And it is true that these more difficult emotions do have the ability to take us out of a regulated state, but when we are are inside of our window of tolerance we are actually connected to all of our emotions. When we are inside of regulation we can still experience anger, but it does not take over and begin to drive us. When we are in this space our parasympathetic nervous system is turned on, which we often call our rest and digest system. I see this as good news, as we do not have to fight experiencing some of this emotions as we try to improve our relationship to them.

But when the emotion becomes too overwhelming, we will move out of rest and digest as our sympathetic system turns on. This is colloquially referred to as our fight or flight response system, which informs us that we might need to engage in battle or get away in the midst of stressful situations. This stress response is a positive thing when it comes to escaping situations that might have a bit more actual danger associated with them, but can wreak havoc on our relationships if left unchecked. While trauma responses and anxiety are some of the more common ways that we get outside of our window, they are certainly not the only ways. When we are in this hyperaroused state our cortisol levels rise and we move out of being in a relaxed state. We feel on high alert and we can feel our breathing rate increase as our body tries to pull in more oxygen.

This is what most people think of when they think of needing to regulate. That they are in fight or flight mode and/or their emotional state is out of control. But polyvagal theory teaches us that this is not the only way we can become dysregulated.

Being in hyperarousal is generally a temporary state that our body cannot maintain for a long time. It takes a lot of energy to be up here and staying in this state of chronic stress can be detrimental to our physical health. Eventually our body will move into hypoarsoual which generally looks like a state of collapse. I prefer to use the massively clinically underused phrase "zombie mode." Think of laying in bed and feeling like there is no way that you can get moving. People often describe feeling numb in this state and other see them as apathetic to the situation. When we arrive here, our prefrontal cortex has turned off and we might even reach dissociation.

I bring this up because it is very important for us to understand that this is also the body's response to being overstimulated and is a form of needing nervous system regulation. It can be a bit tricky for people to initially see that they are dysregulated when they are in hypo arousal, but it's just the other side of the coin.

Now that we have defined the two ways in which we get outside of our window and gained a bit more understanding of how our autonomic nervous system works, we can turn our attention to how to regulate.

How to get out of hyperarousal

Our body runs some crazy processes when we move up and out of our window. I like to use the language of saying that we need to now go down. My go to way for getting out of hyperarousal is doing some breathing exercises. I don't think that we really need to overthink this, as long as you are engaging in some deep breathing. The key here though is to exhale longer than you inhale for. The inhales tend to take care of themselves as our body is trying to take more oxygen in, but we actually want to exhale as much as possible.

Another way of deep breaths you can try is belly breathing. Lay on a flat surface and bend your knees. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest and breathe slowly in through your nose, and allow the air to fill in towards your lower belly. I like to think of my belly as being a balloon that I am blowing air into. You should feel the hand that is on your belly rise while the hand on your chest stays still. Exhale through your lips and allow that balloon to deflate as you focus on a nice long exhale. This is also referred to as a diaphragmatic breathing.

While we generally don't want to use reassurance or distraction as a constant resource, when we are outside of our window our main goal needs to be getting back into your window. Have a few slow values activities that you can engage in, and preferably ones that do not involve your phone or the internet. I like to go for slow, mindful walks around my neighborhood or spend some time tending to the plants in my backyard. Again, we are coming down and so we are trying to slow everything down in hopes of getting our digestive tract back online. Keep physical activity light during this and perhaps you can engage in some long form yoga poses or slow stretches.

How to get out of hypoarsoual

Moving out of hypoarousal is often harder for people, especially when they have not gained the skills for how to get back into their window. When we have moved into zombie mode we generally just want to lie under a warm blanket and turn everything off. However, the way back into our window is actually going to be by going back up into hyperarousal and then regulating from there. It is not much of an oversimplification to think that we can focus on the opposite coping skills that we were utilizing before.

Again, I like to start with the breath but this time rather than taking long and slow breaths, we are going to be taking fast vigorous breaths. Think of if you've ever been trying to gear yourself up for some intense physical activity. You take really fast breaths in by trying to take in a lot of oxygen and then release the breath quickly. Wim Hof breathing has become increasingly popular in the past few years and for good reason. This is my go to move for going up.

My second move is to use some form of cold water immersion. This is the one that most people have a love/hate relationship with. If you have access to a cold plunge, this is great. You only need about three minutes in there in order to do the trick. You can also do cold showers or even just hold an ice cube. If you've ever taken a cold shower before, think of what your breath does when that water begins to hit you. You automatically start breathing fast and hard. But eventually your body will calm itself down and you will move into a restful state. The benefits here are far reaching as cold water therapy has positive effects on our immune system as well as our mental health.

Both of these methods can be a little intense and so if you need to start a bit lighter, try doing some physical activity like going for a walk or light jog. You can even just stand up and begin to move your body, but remember, our goal is to go up, now down. We aren't trying to move slowly and mindfully, we are trying to get our heart rate moving again.

I've seen people be surprised at how getting out of hypoarousal actually works. But then they are disappointed to find that as they get into hyperarousal they are then again faced with the internal or external stimuli that brought them to the place of dysregulation anyways. But this is okay because ultimately we are trying to find ways to be able to connect to and experience all of our emotions. If fear brought you outside of your window, the goal is not to never feel fear again. It is to get "good" at feeling fear.


Working on your heart rate variability is also very helpful for managing regulation. Lots of research has come out on HRV in the past five years, noting how we see benefits in our overall health by having high conflicting inputs of activity and recovery. Spending some time everyday with your heart rate elevated in addition to spending time everyday trying to calm down is helpful for expanding our window.


When you are ready for more information on the Gift of Emotions, you can head to our site and learn more about them from our online course. If you are looking for an in person option, you can join us for Emotions 101, a weekly group that dives into the details of what are emotions are and what they do for us. We are here for you, when you are ready!

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