Trauma, amirite? I’ve talked about it a few times before, and I don’t necessarily want to harp on it, but I think I maybe keep going back to it because I see so many people dealing with trauma symptoms and not realizing what is going on, or not knowing what to do about it. And this is no shade at my clients or people seeking help, there’s still way too many professionals out there who are not trauma informed. What happens with trauma is that it keeps your nervous system dysregulated. The nervous system is a huge network that sends messages from cell to cell within body, pretty much giving us the ability to do all of our bodily tasks. The nervous system breaks down into other systems, but the simple idea is it is the messaging system that takes in stimuli and allows us to react in different ways. A bunch of it runs on autopilot and requires no cognitive thought, however, when these systems become dysregulated it can be hard to fix because it isn’t stuff we’ve ever had to consciously consider before. So if autopilot goes haywire, but we have no experience being in control, how do we make it better?
Well, we can’t really take over. You can’t think your liver into producing more enzymes, and you can’t level out your hormones by sending a thought to your various glands. But what we can do is make it easier for our body to regulate itself. If our body has to spend a ton of resources balancing out every single process, it won’t be able to. It won’t have the time or resources. So, we can make it easier for the body to run like it should by being regular in the processes we can make a conscious choice about. This is what professionals who work with trauma mean when we say “regulate the nervous system.” So, we don’t have total control, but we can make cognitive decisions that allow our body to run smoother.
How to do that varies, honestly, because each person will process stimuli differently. I love yoga. I love it as a personal practice, but I also love to recommend it to clients. Seriously, do more yoga. It is such a powerful tool for regulation. It has bodily movement, stretching, breathing, exercise, meditation, all these things that help your body and brain get back into sync. But I also know a lot of people don’t like yoga. It isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine (I will say, personally, I think too many people don’t like it because they think they are somehow “bad” at it, not because it isn’t working). We never want just one tool in our tool kit, so we have options. Another great option is exercise! Woohoo! Go for a run, take the dog for a walk, hit the weight room, kickbox, shoot hoops, whatever it takes to get your body moving. Exercise rocks for regulating your nervous system. It helps convert a bunch of stored energy into action, it helps move oxygen around your bloodstream, it can increase breathing capacity, it can reduce injury likelihood, keeps your heart healthy. All good stuff. What else do we have? Sleep! Go to bed at a similar time each night, wake up at a similar time each morning. Let your body have a rhythm, and honor that it helps your body to have some sort of routine. It helps to keep all these automatic processes in your body in a routine as well! What else, what else, oh yeah, eat healthy foods! If you fill your car up with Mountain Dew, it won’t work as well as it would with gasoline. And if you use premium gas, your car will work even better! Replace the oil, get the bad out, replace with good stuff, sounds a bit like our digestive system! Eating healthy, natural, nutrient-rich food fuels your body in the same way. You can put junk it, and it might still run for the most part, but you’re losing out on major efficiency and eventually going to break down. Eating healthy helps to regulate a lot of your systems because it gives your body a plethora of resources it needs to get automatic tasks done.
But Jer, you might be saying, this is all basic stuff that everyone recommends! I know! It is all important stuff, and honestly, not enough people are good at even these steps. It isn’t a fix to everything, learning how to be intentional and using routine coping skills like mindfulness and breathing are a big part of a regulated nervous system, but too many people are dysregulated because of mindlessness. I feel crummy, my brain is foggy, my digestion is all over the place, but then our diet, sleep, and exercise are all over the place, too. How is our body supposed to naturally regulate when none of our controllable systems are on a regular schedule? And this stuff doesn’t need to be maniacally habitual (maybe sleep, you’ve got like an hour window to play with for sleep hygiene), but it needs to be regular enough for your body to have the resources it needs to take care of its own processes. I’m a huge fan of mindfulness, because there’s so many different tools under that big umbrella, and polyvagal theory I think is opening up a lot of research opportunities for even more skills and tools to use to regulate the nervous system, but I like to highlight the basics still because if those are off, no fancy new system or trick is going to compensate for those things. So, work on regulating your nervous system, your brain and your body will thank you by working way better.