How to Regulate Your Nervous System


Take a big inhale, hold your breath for five seconds, and release over three seconds to regulate your nervous system, posts a large Instagram account.

If your attachments aren’t secure, your nervous system won’t be either, writes a psychologist on Twitter.

Rock back and fourth to reset your nervous system when its dysregulated, explains a popular new-age self-help blogger.

The era of “nervous system dysregulation” (and regulation) is here.

I’ve got nothing against breathing exercises; they work wonderfully for some people in some situations. I agree that secure attachment is the best kind. And I suppose physical rocking can provide comfort to certain people who are in distress.

What I want to do here is define nervous system dysregulation in simple terms, and then talk about a key psychological concept that can help in a way that is broader and deeper than any one-off behavior or hack.

Nervous System Dysregulation In Simple Terms

Your nervous system is the connection between your body and brain that gives rise to your subjective experience of feeling and related thoughts. The affective neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes that when people talk about their “minds,” they are talking about their nervous systems.

Labeling it dysregulated is a fancy way of saying you are feeling panic, angst, lethargy, excitement, distress, or a range of other sensations when they are not called for, or to a greater degree than you want or would expect.

We could simplify even further by saying nervous system dysregulation describes someone who is feeling out of whack.

Hardiness Can Help

Developed by the research psychologists Suzanne Kobasa, from the University of Chicago, and Salvatore Maddi, from the University of California at Irvine, Hardiness is a mindset and practice with three crucial prongs:

  1. Commitment: Asks that you accept the situation you are in—whether you like it or not—and move forward anyway. You resist the temptation to turn away from obstacles and lean into them instead. Rather than slip into isolation and alienation, you do the hard work of staying involved with the people and events going on around you.
  2. Control: Involves figuring out what you can do to productively influence a situation, and then taking action. When you display this trait you do what you can to focus on shifting what you can shift, and trying to be flexible and respond thoughtfully to the rest.
  3. Challenge: Viewing life as an ongoing and ever-changing exercise with no fixed outcome. Instead of feeling threatened by change and disorder, you perceive it as a fact of life and an opportunity for growth. (Easier said than done, but it’s really important.)

Hardiness does not suggest that you white-knuckle your way through everything. It’s about focusing on what you can control and trying not to waste time and energy on what you cannot. It’s about responding instead of reacting to what life throws your way.

Studies show that hardiness protects against distress and overwhelm and increases energy, meaning, fulfillment, deep relationships, overall well-being, and life satisfaction.

Kobasa and Maddi write that hardiness is integral to finding “the existential courage that facilitates an ongoing search for meaning in life.” Yeesh. Who doesn’t want—and need—more of that?

Hardiness is one of those crucial traits that works on our mind (psychology), body (biology), and spirit (meaning). In other words, it’s a solid foundation for “nervous system regulation.”

You can develop and practice it by focusing on the 3 C’s in your own life: commit to accepting reality; control what you can and release from the rest; view hardship as a challenge.

No doubt, hardiness requires practice. It’s not a switch you can flip. But with repetition, you can develop it. Do it enough, and hardiness becomes a core part of your identity, an enduring source of stability and “regulation” amid life’s storms.


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