3 Keys to Cultivating a Healthy, Balanced Nervous System

Practicing yoga on the beach

If you have studied trauma or yoga in the past decade, you’ve likely heard about the nervous system and its role in healing. Indeed, research and theory in trauma recovery has focused intensively on bringing balance to the nervous system and processing somatic impulses that become stored in the body. These processes are key components of healing. In the midst of discussing imbalances in the nervous system, we can lose sight of what a healthy nervous system looks and feels like, and of our efforts not only to heal imbalances, but to cultivate and encourage a balanced, healthy nervous system.

In the process of healing, it is as important to address problematic symptoms as it is to cultivate health. Here are three aspects of a healthy nervous system to be aware of as you navigate this balanced approach to healing that cultivates health as it soothes challenges.

1. Choices

When we are in what Dr. Daniel Siegel called the nervous system’s “window of tolerance,” we feel we have a choice as to how we respond to the world. Once the nervous system is dysregulated, we begin to react rather than respond, meaning that the moment of choice slips away and behavior becomes automatic, guided by the limbic (emotional) system and the reptilian brain (brain stem) rather than reflective thought. When the nervous system is in balance, we feel we have access to our capacity to choose; when the nervous system becomes excessively stimulated or shuts down, our capacity for choice goes with it.

To exercise this capacity for choice, notice your own behavior and when you can give yourself options, even if it’s just between two things. If you tend toward anxiety, what choices can you give yourself that help you feel soothed? In the absence of any challenge, when do you notice yourself choosing between behaviors? Practicing asking yourself, “Where do I have choice?” in mundane moments may help you to remain in your window when challenged. Your mantra could be “what can I choose now?” or “what choices led to this experience?” We can encourage access to our own window of tolerance by building awareness of our own choices and encouraging the mental habit of actively seeking opportunities to choose.

2. Social Engagement

Social engagement is a function of more developed aspects of the nervous system (namely the myelinated vagus nerve, as described in Dr. Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory). When we are far outside of our window of tolerance, it becomes difficult to engage socially. When we do not feel supported and connected to others, the feelings of shutdown can be stronger and much more profound.

Monitoring your capacity to connect can help you understand the state of your nervous system.

Monitoring your capacity to connect can help you understand the state of your nervous system. We all have tendencies to prefer certain aspects of social engagement, so this is not about conforming to cultural ideals of being either a social butterfly or an ascetic monk. Instead, this step involves knowing your social habits and noticing when they change. You may be someone with a few select, deep friendships, or you may have a large group of friends you like to engage in activities with regularly.

When does your social behavior change? When do you feel that you connect with other human beings (or animals)? What feels healthy and balancing for you? Connection with another sentient being can have a deep and soothing impact on the nervous system, so rather than ask if you get this need met, ask yourself how you can get it met. Explore when and with whom you feel soothed, safe, calm, and secure, and make conscious choices to spend time and energy in these circumstances whenever possible.

3. Asking for Help

Combining both this awareness of having choices with social engagement leads us to the third important step in cultivating a nervous system that can remain within its window of tolerance. When we ask others for assistance, or for what we need, we not only recognize our capacity for choice, we connect socially with those who are willing and able to help us. We are also much more likely to get our needs met when we can recognize and communicate them.

An additional aspect of this choice is to know what you need, which takes self-reflection as well as some degree of understanding and self-acceptance. As such, this step takes time and ongoing practice. As you learn more about and understand yourself better, identifying your needs and communicating them will become more natural.

As you continue on your path of healing, ask yourself: when do you have choices, who can you connect with, and how can they help you remain in this balanced place where healing feels possible? Each of these aspects can help improve your feeling of connection, presence, and health. These are things worth continuing to practice, cultivate, and put energy into over a lifetime—not a one-time solution but a way of being that encourages health in the nervous system, emotion, and relationships.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa Danylchuk, MEd, LMFT, E-RYT, therapist in Oakland, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ronni

    January 14th, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    For me becoming a more balanced person has really been mostly about discovering something about myself that I loved, finding things to do that I loved, and holding onto both of those things pretty faithfully.

  • Dana

    January 14th, 2016 at 1:30 PM

    It makes so much sense but I have never heard of anyone talking about getting the nervous system into balance

  • barb

    January 15th, 2016 at 6:02 PM

    I am beginning to discover that I have many facets to my (self) that are nothing more than insubstantial personality layers created initially to meet a psychic need. I’m just now discovering these “friends ” and find it quite disturbing — I’m recognizing the falseness that I present to the world — many unkempt promises, assurances that I am taking care of myself, that I was healthy and balanced. I’m not. There are many lies I’ve told, promises never kept, bills unpaid — Facing and fixing these lies is my task.

  • Jackii

    January 16th, 2016 at 5:05 AM

    I have to remind myself every day that I have choices. I have a choice in what I allow to influence me and then I have choices in terms of how I react to the things that always seem to come up on a daily basis. This is not a life that I have no control over. I am perfectly capable of maintaining control, I just have to make that my mantra

  • ellis

    January 18th, 2016 at 7:40 AM

    Has to be a multi pronged attack. Take care of the body, mind, and spirit and things always have a way of falling right into place.

  • Ola

    January 20th, 2016 at 11:14 AM

    Staying connected with our friends is a vital piece of the puzzle that many of us tend to ignore.
    friends are usually one of the first things that we tend to drop when we are feeling down, but if you make that commitment to stay involved with others then this can go a long way toward keeping the mind clear and healthy.

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