Is your nervous system okay?
As physical therapists, we are always talking about the musculoskeletal system (which is totally our thing), but we can’t forget about its BFF: the nervous system. The two are in constant communication exchanging information and working hard to keep your mind and body functioning properly and keep you happy and healthy.
So, what exactly is the nervous system? Made up of your brain, spinal cord and a network of nerves, its function is divided into two main categories, somatic and autonomic. The somatic part works as a messaging system relaying information back and forth between the brain and the body via our different senses in order to help us calculate and execute our voluntary responses and reactions. This allows us to experience and interact with our surroundings. The second or autonomic portion is responsible for regulating ongoing processes that we aren’t necessarily aware of such as sleep, breathing, heart rate, digestion and response to stressful situations along with many other things. With everything combined, the nervous system has a big job and it’s important to make sure we are doing everything we can to support it!
So, what are some signs that your nervous system might need some TLC? When we talk about nervous system dysregulation, we are talking specifically about the autonomic portion, which is responsible for those processes that don’t require our direct awareness or attention. When your heart rate increases and you feel heightened awareness in a stressful situation, this is your autonomic nervous system reacting to some kind of external threat or stressor and making changes in your body to allow you to deal with the situation as best you can. If your system is constantly detecting multiple different threats/ stressors for long periods of time, it can become dysregulated which makes it difficult for the body to come out of a heightened or hypervigilant state.
Some different potential perceived threats to the system can be anything ranging from unprocessed trauma, autoimmune disease, hormonal imbalance, poor diet/ nutrition, lack of physical activity, exposure to environmental toxins, or chronic stress to name a few. Dysregulation can then manifest as chronic pain, inflammation, gut issues, trouble sleeping, feeling on edge all of the time and other physical signs of disrupted homeostasis in the body.
What are some tools to help regulate the nervous system?
1. Drinking enough water.
Did you know that you're supposed to drink half your body weight in pounds, in ounces of water EVERY. DAY. ?! If you have a difficult time drinking enough water, try changing the way you get your water such as drinking through a straw or a fun cup. At Hey Babe we love our emotional support water bottles. Sometimes our patients do best when they set an alarm for water breaks throughout the day, usually once every 2 hours.
Meditation has been found to lower resting heart rate, reduce negative emotions and give new perspective on stressful situations. Meditation can be challenging at first, and you can always start with just 2-3 minutes a day to practice.
Studies have shown that 20 minutes of meditation daily will have measurable effects on the brain after 45 days!
3. Getting enough sleep.
Your quality of sleep could be causing more stress and more pain! Consider your bedtime ritual if you're getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night. Poor quality of sleep can also be indicated by taking longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, waking up more than once in the night or taking longer than 20 minutes to fall back asleep if you wake up.
Take a look at things like the temperature of your room, if you are consuming alcohol before bed and if you are exercising daily, as these along with other things could help you feel more rested and better overall!
Yoga improves strength and flexibility, but did you know it can also improve heart health, help you sleep better (speaking of sleep quality) and reduce your stress level? Just 20 minutes a day can make a huge difference!
Along with these suggestions, sunshine, breathwork, balanced diet/ adequate nutrition, spending time outside in nature, cardiovascular exercise, strength training, connecting with loved ones, reduced screen time and journaling are just some of the things you can try. You can also of course go to physical therapy ;)
Your physical therapist can help talk through your symptoms to help identify what tools could be beneficial or which other healthcare providers may be helpful for you to consult with. We can help you identify which exercises may be best for you and work on different stretches and breathing techniques to help with down regulation. We can also provide different types of manual therapy such as cupping and myofascial release to reduce systemic tension and increase blood flow to promote healing.
When life is moving fast it can be *really* hard to slow down and take a breath, and our nervous systems are sometimes left to fend for themselves and operate in these fast-paced, high stress environments. This is your cue to give your nervous system some love and attention. We know it can be so hard to take time for ourselves. Start with the little things and notice how your overall sense of wellbeing changes. We're here for you if you or your nervous system needs us <3