The subtle art of feeling safe: How to retrain your nervous brain in 5 steps

The term ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ is quite well-known, and we often use it to describe the anxious state we’re in when we’re put in highly stressful situations, or instances where we’re feeling threatened or unsafe. You might have experienced this when going in for a job interview, witnessing a traffic altercation, or walking past someone walking a big and seemingly aggressive dog. Our hearts start beating faster, our breathing becomes shallower, our limbs feel tense, and we may feel a shot of “ice” running through our veins.
In instances like these, this bodily reaction makes sense, right? Our body is preparing us to ‘fight’ (to rush to help those involved in the accident), ‘flight’ (run very far away from a dog who might harm us), or ‘freeze’ (when we get stage fright). But what happens when we get these jolts of anxiety in situations where there is no obvious threat?
To explain this, neuroscientist and psychologist, Dr Stephen Porges introduced the Polyvagal Theory and neuroception¹. In this theory, there are three states of being: dorsal vagal (‘freeze’), sympathetic (‘fight or flight’), and ventral vagal (‘safety’). The state we are in depends on how safe we feel in an environment – also known as ‘neuroception’.
Neuroception

Neuroception is a subconscious process that occurs in our brain and acts as our internal bodily ‘security guard’². It gets our body ready to fight off or run away from dangerous situations. Porges explains that neuroception happens automatically on a subconscious level. The reason this process happens automatically is because it is triggered by our autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The ANS is responsible for regulating automatic bodily functions like digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing³. When we see an aggressive dog, our ANS has already started increasing our blood pressure and heart rate to pump blood to our legs to run – without us realising!

However, sometimes our neuroception is hypersensitive, and puts our body in a dorsal vagal or sympathetic state even when we are in a safe environment⁴. Signs of this include feeling jumpy, irritable, anxiety, brain fog, and easily overwhelmed. There are many possible reasons for hypersensitive neuroception, including genetics, a prolonged stressful work environment, childhood trauma, and executive function (EF) challenges⁵.

Neuroception and emotional regulation

Every person has a unique (EF) profile, and so we all have different responses to a single outside stimulus. One EF challenge that is often connected to neurodiversity is difficulty with regulating emotions. This emotional dysregulation causes a heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli and social situations. This means that attending a big house party or presenting in front of colleagues that might seem only a little stressful for one person, can trigger a far greater fight-flight-freeze response in someone with EF challenges⁶.

Effects of prolonged a fight-flight-freeze state

While neuroception is an invaluable survival mechanism, when our nervous system is in a prolonged dorsal vagal or sympathetic state, it can have serious consequences on our mental and physical health! Being in a constant state of stress and anxiety can lead to physical ailments like hypertension and heart disease, digestive issues, sleep disturbances, and a compromised immune system⁷. It can also lead to psychological issues like social avoidance, anxiety disorder, and depression⁸. So how do we begin to retrain our neuroception and return to a ventral vagal state of safety?

Retraining our nervous system

Healing and regulating our nervous system, as well as managing our neuroception, involves a holistic approach that considers various aspects of our lifestyle, behaviours, and mental well-being. Here are 5 strategies that can get you started:

1. Move your body

And don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to sign up for a gym membership or enter a marathon! Exercise, whether it’s a brisk walk, a workout routine, or yoga, helps release built-up tension, promotes the release of endorphins (those feel-good hormones). It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, creating a state of relaxation⁹. Find activities you enjoy to make movement a part of your routine.

2. Get your nutrients in

Maintaining a well-balanced diet plays a crucial role in supporting the nervous system. Ensure you’re getting essential nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and B vitamins¹⁰. These nutrients help with brain function, stress hormone regulation, and overall neural health. They can be found in foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins like chicken and fish.

3. Talk to someone

Social connections are so important for our emotional well-being and nervous system regulation¹¹. Engaging in open and supportive conversations with friends, family, or a mental health professional can provide a valuable outlet for expressing emotions, gaining perspective, and receiving support. Sharing your thoughts and feelings can contribute to a sense of connection and safety.

4. Maintain boundaries

Don’t take your work home with you. Establishing clear boundaries between work and personal life is essential for preventing chronic stress and promoting nervous system balance¹². Define specific work hours, take breaks, and avoid bringing work-related stress into your personal space. Prioritise self-care activities, hobbies, and downtime to recharge outside of work responsibilities.

5. Limit your caffeine intake

I’m very guilty of this one – I’m even sipping a flat white as I type this! While caffeine can give us a temporary energy boost, excessive intake can contribute to heightened arousal and disrupt our sleep patterns¹³. Limiting caffeine, especially in the afternoon and evening, can support better sleep quality and help prevent overstimulation of the nervous system. Opt for herbal teas or decaffeinated options later in the day.

Incorporating these strategies into your daily life can contribute to a more balanced and regulated nervous system. It’s essential to be kind to yourself on your nervous system healing journey. Try to approach these changes gradually and find what works best for you. Because of our beautifully unique brains, what might work for me may not work for you. Consistency is key, and making small, sustainable adjustments over time can lead to significant improvements in overall well-being.

Don’t forget to sign up for our upcoming live webinar:

The Fundamentals of Healing Your ADHD Nervous System

Join psychologist, mentor & EF coach, Anna Daphna, and educational psychologist, Casey Anley, on the 7th of February at 1-2pm GMT to unpack how to start healing our nervous systems.

Limited space available. Click here to reserve your spot!

A note from the author:

“Having been diagnosed with ADHD just over a year ago, I’ve encountered many ‘aha’ moments about my neurodivergent brain in the past few months! One of these has been discovering the Polyvagal Theory. Implementing these 5 simple strategies into my routine has been a game-changer for returning to a ventral vagal state.”

Megan Wright,

Communications Coordinator

References:

[1] Porges, S.W. (2009). “The polyvagal theory: new insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system”. Cleve Clin J Med, 76(2), S86-90. DOI: 10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17.[2] Porges, S.W. (2004). “Neuroception: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety”. Zero to Three, 24, pages 19-24. https://api.semanticscholar.org/CorpusID:19994146.[3] Powley, T.L. (2013). “Chapter 34 – Central Control of Autonomic Functions: Organization of the Autonomic Nervous System”. Fundamental Neuroscience (Fourth Edition), pages 729-747. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-385870-2.00034-2.[4] Griffin, M.G., Goodman, B.F., Chesher, R.E. and Kecala, N.M. (2020). “Psychophysiology of Traumatic Stress and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder”. The Wiley Encyclopedia of Health Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119057840.ch33[5] Elbers, J., Jaradeh, S., Yeh, A.M., and Golianu, B. (2018) “Wired for Threat: Clinical Features of Nervous System Dysregulation in 80 Children”. Pediatric Neurology, 89, pages 39-48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pediatrneurol.2018.07.007[6] Murray Harrison, A. (2022). “Insights into Safety and Connection in Relationships Provided by Psychoanalytic Treatment of Autistic Individuals”. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 42(1), pages 23-29. DOI: 10.1080/07351690.2022.2007021.[7] Tobaldini, E., Costantino, G., Solbiati, M., Cogliati, C., Kara,T., Nobili, L., and Montano, N. (2017). “Sleep, sleep deprivation, autonomic nervous system and cardiovascular diseases”. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 74, Part B, pages 321-329. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.07.004.[8] Price, J., Drevets, W. (2010). “Neurocircuitry of Mood Disorders”. Neuropsychopharmacol 35, pages 192–216. https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2009.104[9] Tsatsoulis, A., Fountoulakis, S. (2006). “The Protective Role of Exercise on Stress System Dysregulation and Comorbidities”. Stress, Obesity, and Metabolic Syndrome, 1083(1), pages 196-213. https://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1367.020[10] Czyż, K., Bodkowski, R., Herbinger, G., & Librowski, T. (2016). “Omega-3 fatty acids and their role in central nervous system – a review”. Current medicinal chemistry, 23(8), pages 816-831. https://doi.org/10.1177/1352458515604380[11] Jokić-Begić, N. (2010). “Cognitive-behavioral therapy and neuroscience: Towards closer integration”. Psihologijske teme, 19(2), pages 235-254. https://hrcak.srce.hr/clanak/96933[12] Haar, J. M., Russo, M., Suñe, A., & Ollier-Malaterre, A. (2014). “Outcomes of work–life balance on job satisfaction, life satisfaction and mental health: A study across seven cultures”. Journal of vocational behavior, 85(3), pages 361-373. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2014.08.010[13] Nehlig, A., Daval, J. L., & Debry, G. (1992). “Caffeine and the central nervous system: mechanisms of action, biochemical, metabolic and psychostimulant effects”. Brain research reviews, 17(2), pages 139-170.

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