How Do I Heal My Nervous System?

Man sitting down with hands over face and a dysregulated nervous system

If you suffer from low self-esteem, self-loathing, or self-sabotage… if you’ve got toxic shame, chronic anxiety, or depression… if you seem to have a perpetually dysregulated nervous system and just can’t shake your bad habits, intrusive thoughts, and self-defeating behaviors, you may be asking yourself… what the fuck?!

Well, I’d like to take a moment to answer that question for you.

Where It All Began

The fuck that you are inquiring about is most likely a maladaptive trait or coping mechanism that you used to survive less than ideal circumstances in early life. Some call this a trauma response, but don’t let that language scare you.

The famous Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) conducted in the 1990s by Dr. Vincent Felitti of Kaiser Permanente and Dr. Robert Anda of the CDC showed a definitive, scientific correlation between shitty childhood situations and lifelong mental, emotional, physical, social, and economic challenges.

In the original study, they asked around 17,000 middle-class Americans to answer yes or no to ten simple questions regarding their exposure to childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Their responses and subsequent connection to long-term health outcomes were astounding.

On a scale from 0 to 10, a person with an ACE score of 4 is 390% more likely to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in later life than someone with an ACE score of 0 and 460% more likely to be depressed. Similar correlations are made between ACE score and addiction, suicide, STDs, divorce, alcoholism, obesity, unemployment, domestic violence, incarceration, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, various auto-immune diseases, and basically all the worst things in life.

That makes sense.

Now What?

The reason childhood abuse, neglect, or dysfunction are still major factors in one’s quality of life fifty years later is because a trauma response is a physiological adaptation of your nervous system. It literally changes who you are. This is why knowing better is not a strategy for success but more often the reason people bludgeon themselves in toxic shit-spirals of shame and self-condemnation.

“I should know better by now” is the refrain of someone who thinks their intellect controls their central nervous system. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider the case of someone who was mauled by a street dog as a child. Later in life, despite being well aware of how friendly and harmless most dogs are, this person still has a visceral stress response to stray dogs. Completely understandable, no?

Your nervous system doesn’t want you to be rational, or to be right, it wants you to be alive.

What needs to happen then, in order to slowly rewire your nervous system, is to provide it with cues of safety and security so it stops flipping out and ruining your life all the time.

Regulating Your Nervous System 101

Here are a few things to work toward as a means of reclaiming the keys to your life:

Be in touch with your feelings and grounded in your body.

Dissociation — disconnection from the self — is at the root of every trauma response. Healing, therefore, will require that you reconnect to yourself and be able to identify what you are feeling.

Understand what your feelings are telling you about your needs.

You feel good when your needs are satisfied, and you feel bad when they’re not. Simple as that. Instead of just saying, “I feel like shit,” and aimlessly flopping around or self-medicating, maybe you can learn to say “I have an unmet need.” Get curious about what that is and know that you have the power to do something about it.

Know what your needs are.

If you don’t even know what your basic human needs are, you’ll be that hungry idiot in a restaurant staring at the menu for hours saying, “I don’t know what I want.” C’mon now, get it together. Maslow’s Hierarchy is a good place to start. Please educate yourself so you stop believing all you need is food, water, and air. You need so much more to function properly.

Communicate your needs and get them met in healthy ways.

If you were the nervous system inside of a body that never asked for its needs to be met, you’d be freaking the fuck out too. No one else is going to state your needs for you. You absolutely have to learn to do this yourself. Also, know the difference between the unhealthy extremes of being overly dependent, independent, or codependent and the healthy goal of being interdependent.

Consistent self-love and self-care practices.

This is how you tell your nervous system, “I’m a healthy, loving, trustworthy adult, and I’m going to take good care of you now. You have nothing to worry about.” It’s called reparenting yourself — doing the things you needed but perhaps did not get when you were a child.

Identify a dysregulated nervous system and self-soothe in appropriate ways.

If you can’t recognize when you’re triggered, your lizard brain is gonna take you for a ride to see the dope dealer (whatever brand of self-destructive escape you fancy), and maybe make a few poor decisions and regrettable accusations along the way. The difference between self-soothing and self-medicating is awareness and choice. Get real familiar with how you feel and act when you’re triggered and keep a list of healthy self-soothing activities handy (call a friend, listen to music, meditate, nap, etc.).

Practice Practice Practice

These six practices are just that — practices.

You won’t do them perfectly. You’re not supposed to.

Just start today.

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

6 thoughts on “How Do I Heal My Nervous System?

  1. Excellent article! The abrupt but witty wisdom is the push many of us need. Great Work

  2. I have experienced childhood emotional neglect and abuse. I was filled with none to contradictory signals from my well intended mother, mix of tough love and bad judéo-christian concepts. I am still reeling from it, I have all the lights on the master control board blinking red, numbness, despair, lack of self love. I am a now therapist, a scarred and empathetic one. Empath, giver, the abuse continued with life partners and family. I cannot go against my true nature as a healer, but my inner bunch of spinning sub-personalities needs more tlc … now is the time.

    I am so happy I crossed your path, The truth soothes me. I am feeling stuck and fucked up inside, toxic shamed, the whole enchilada. But I am a survivor 😉

    1. Thank you for sharing, Sylvie. Many of my clients are doctors, therapists, and healthcare professionals. When we dig into their past, we always find a smoldering crater of dysfunction. I’m not convinced anyone had a super healthy childhood. But isn’t it interesting that people often “do what they need” by entering helping professions? You ARE a survivor, which is probably why you’re able to help others. And, remember, that you’re allowed to get the help you need as well. In fact, I think it’s important you do so that you can be of maximum service to your clients. Thank you for reading, and for your kind words ❤️.

  3. This is so well said. This is a tangent, but I came here after listening to you on Andrea’s Adult Child podcast. My sister and I are in our early 20’s but I spiraled bigtime after leaving home when I realized that we both continued living in a weird self-imposed pattern of victimhood. Having resources like this has helped me to pick myself off the damn floor, take responsibility for my wants and needs, and enter communities. Most importantly, it has helped me to offer these resources to family and friends that are receptive. This work truly has the potential to break trauma that has persisted through generations, as dramatic as it sounds. I’m grateful to you for helping to inspire the early-life-crisis I, and many of my friends and family, needed in order to stop living alone. Though my current career is different, this content causes me to rethink how I want to use my time and energy in life. Either way, it’s cool to pass it on!

    1. OMG, thanks, Susanna! I appreciate you sharing a bit of your story and your gratitude. Yes, it’s difficult to heal without, on some level, becoming a healer yourself. I’m so happy to know that my message of hope and recovery is reaching the right people ❤️.

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