The problem isn’t anger. The problem is when this happens *every day* or when we’re out of touch with what our emotions are telling us.
Anger is an emotion that many of us can have a hard time expressing. Women especially can feel guilty about both experiencing anger and letting it show. We’re socialized not to raise our voice, complain, show when we’re mad, or lose our tempers.
But… that’s pretty limiting, isn’t it? I always remind therapy clients that we, as human beings, are supposed to feel the full range of emotions. It’s normal, natural, healthy, and just part of the human experience. We don’t question “positive” emotions like happiness, excitement, sadness, or contentment. But anger? Rage? Frustration? We *love* to judge and criticize those ones don’t we? We have to remember that motherhood is an imperfect journey though and that self-forgiveness is key. And, we are human.
I get it though, you don’t really want to be angry. When we’re mad—or becoming angry—we may show up a little differently than we want to and feel disappointed in ourselves, or even worry about being a “bad mom”.
But first let me reassure you that literally everyone has moments where they snap, let frustration get the best of them, or have a fight with a loved one. We slip up and yell at our kids, get short or snippy with our partner, or respond in a way that we’d rather not.
I’m not going to try to convince you to love this part of you, or that it’s okay to lose your sh*t at your kids. We all know that it’s not and most people already feel badly about this. However, I am going to tell you over and over again that it’s normal to feel big emotions, and that there’s a lot that you can learn to regulate yourself so that even when you’re pissed right off about something, you still feel good about how you behave. Sounds good?
So, to start, what would happen if you could get curious about anger instead of judging it and then feeling guilty? A lot of the time our emotions are actually trying to tell us something. In the case of frustration or losing your temper, your emotions may be a cue that your nervous system is dysregulated. Or about to be. Okay, so what does that mean exactly?
The nervous system: The cliffs notes
You can’t understand nervous system dysregulation if you don’t know what the nervous system is and what its functions are. Seriously, there are entire books on this stuff and could (and will) fill several blog posts and courses. For the sake of keeping things to-the-point and brief though, here’s what you need to know…
Your nervous system is responsible for your threat-detection and threat-response, essentially in charge of keeping you (and your loved ones) safe. Your brain and body work together to detect when there’s danger or a threat. When there is, you’re primed to react accordingly. It’s a survival and protection mechanism.
You may not be aware of it (or maybe you’re painfully aware!) but you are constantly on the lookout, scanning for potential harms and sorting through information presented to you throughout your day. This is almost like a watchman keeping an eye on everything from a guard tower.
The problem? Sometimes your nervous system is working too hard and starts to sound the alarm at every little thing. Sometimes it also perceives everyday stressors as a threat and goes into overdrive. In other words, you’ve passed through your window of being able to manage the stressors, and your system kicks you into high gear (learn more about the window of tolerance here).
When you no longer feel calm, present, and in control, your nervous system becomes dysregulated. It’s when the stress becomes too much. When your nervous system is dysregulated, you feel overwhelmed, not in a calm state, unable to tolerate certain stressors… or really freaking irritated.
This is when you snap, yell, rage cry, or feel stressed beyond what would be understood as normal stress. Sometimes people also completely withdraw, shutdown, get really quiet, and avoid the situation that’s causing stress.
Still not sure what this feels like? Here are five common signs that your nervous system is becoming dysregulated:
You’re short tempered.
This is that state when everything just makes you want to crack! You’re about to snap, yell, hit back with a sassy comeback or straight up flip out. You might also recognize that the way you’re feeling is out of proportion to the trigger. For example, your partner asking you to repeat yourself, or your kid literally spilling milk isn’t logically cause for a meltdown is it? Probably not. But when your nervous system is dysregulated, you’re not tolerating stress in a normal way. If you’re always on edge and irritable, this is a nervous system red flag.
Noise is driving you nuts.
You hear the microwave beep for longer than necessary. The song on the radio is annoying. The stove top fan is on, your kids are bickering, and OMG the notifications going off on your phone are driving you nuts! Okay so feeling overly sensitive to noise is a really really big sign that you’re becoming dysregulated. If you start to notice normal everyday sounds just driving you nuts, it’s time to implement some self-regulation strategies.
Normal child requests feel annoying.
Your reaction to your child’s needs is often a telltale sign that you’re becoming dysregulated. Sometimes even the simplest requests can just feel like such a burden but you don’t know why. Your kiddo might be in a curious mood and asking lots of questions. Or she’s sick and has (understandably) needs beyond what a regular day would include. You’re dealing with scraped knees after a fall on the bike, food pickiness or tears. For some reason it’s all just feeling like a huge burden and it’s making you irritable. That’s because your nervous system is dysregulated and perceiving normal things as a threat or even an attack.
Your space feels chaotic and it’s triggering.
Alright, picture this scenario. You wake up in the morning not feeling totally rested despite having had a decent sleep. You come down to your kitchen to make your coffee and… last night’s dishes are sitting in a mess. Your living room is a little disorganized. There are stacks of papers on the kitchen table, clutter on the counter, and the floors could use a good sweep. This makes you want to scream, cry, or both! Our living spaces can have a huge impact on mental health. The old saying, “tidy house, tidy mind,” as annoying as it is, is kind of true. Your reaction to a messy space can also be a sign that you’re becoming dysregulated. If last night’s dishes are the last straw and cause you to crack, you’re going to need to self-soothe or direct intense energy elsewhere in order to calm your nervous system.
You want everyone to leave you alone!
Oh gosh, that feeling of wanting to hide from the entire world and have everyone just leave you the heck alone is such a common symptom of nervous system dysregulation. That reaction when your child is asking for help with something while your partner is trying to confirm plans for dinner as you’re catching up on morning emails… it can feel like a lot when you’re becoming dysregulated. It’s so common that we snap for ”no reason” at these moments. If you just want to be by yourself and “hide” you’re probably in need of some grounding, connection, and calm moments in your day. You’re allowed to ask for this space!
How to regulate your nervous system when you’re angry
As mentioned, both the nervous system and nervous system regulation are huge topics worthy of textbooks and courses. For our purposes here, I’m only talking about one small sub-topic under this umbrella: nervous system dysregulation and anger.
If one, some, or all of the above feel familiar, you’re going to want to explore ways to regulate your nervous system. Or, in other words, bring yourself back into your window of tolerance so that you can feel calm, able to go on with your day, and back to normal.
Now, something to know is that not all methods of nervous system regulation are created equal. This blog post is about managing anger. When you’re about to lose your temper or you’re constantly irritable, subtle ways of regulating your nervous system (like breathing exercises or tuning into surroundings and senses) might not work as well. You need methods that will match your current energy (big energy might need a big response).
Below, I’m listing five ways to regulate your nervous system when you’re really freaking mad!
Exercise. Intense emotions call for an action that’s on the same level. A burst of vigorous exercise is probably the best thing that you can do to move this angry energy along and complete your stress response. Think a run, a HIIT workout, a brisk walk, or a weight session
Flutter lips. Fluttering lips (think horse lips where you flap your lips audibly as you exhale) is one of the common nervous system regulation tactics because it stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system and essentially tells your brain that you’re safe. This quick tool is completely accessible. You can literally do this anywhere—be it at your desk, while cooking dinner or when driving with a crying child in the car.
Shake it out! Again this is about giving that intense energy somewhere to go. Shake your arms, your legs and just move in whatever way your body is asking you to. Turn up the music and turn it into a crazy dance party for a few songs until you start to come down from big emotions.
Butterfly taps. Cross your arms over each other and begin tapping underneath your collar bone. You can start off with quicker, more intentional tapping and ease up to gentle taps as you feel yourself regulate and come back to a calm state. ALthough this tool can feel a bit woo-woo, it’s actually science-backed (tapping offers bilateral stimulation, which helps regulate your nervous system).
Sing. When you stimulate your vocal cords, you’re activating your parasympathetic nervous system by vibrating up against your vagus nerve. This can be done by humming as well but when you’re angry, irritated and about to snap (or have already!) you need a bigger response. Close the door, turn up the music and just belt out the tunes. In a few minutes, you’ll notice that you physically are starting to feel better.
I want to remind you again that anger and irritation are natural emotions that we all feel from time to time. If you’re tempted to judge yourself for feeling irritated by your kids or partner, remember that it’s literally impossible to go through life without feeling this way. We can’t show up in exactly the way that we want to in every moment of every single day. Sometimes we snap or storm out of the room.
Remember this: the problem isn’t actually the anger. You’re not an angry mom and you don’t have a rage problem. The problem is how you deal with or express the anger, and if you’re feeling like it’s coming out in ways that aren’t aligned with how you want to be as a parent. Learning self-regulation tools is what will help with this.
After reading this post, do you have a better idea of how anger is a symptom of nervous system dysregulation? Next time you feel that sense of anger bubbling over, will you be able to ask yourself what your anger is trying to communicate? I’d also love to know which of these nervous system regulation tips worked best for you.
How to make yourself a priority again even when it feels like there’s no time.
You count. You matter. You deserve as much time, effort and energy as you give to other people. Oof, as basic as that is, that can be hard to remember sometimes! I completely get how self-care, identity, and self-prioritization can slip during the transition to motherhood. It happened to me too! Even just hearing the word “self-care” can be triggering. It’s like you’re trying hard enough as it is just to keep the normal day-to-day things running. Self-care? You might be at the point where you’re just aiming to keep your head above water… whatever that looks like for you.
As a therapist for moms (and someone who went through my own difficulties when I became a mother) you might just be trying to keep your kids alive, breathing and in one piece. Sometimes getting food on the table and doing the bare minimum is enough. I get that. Sometimes a nap or a hot shower is all you can manage when you’re in the phase where you can barely even go to the bathroom without your child being attached to you. This is so hard. If that’s where you’re at, acceptance is the word. Accept what this stage looks like, but also do what you can to take little steps toward more balance, and know that the best is yet to come.
If, however, your kids are older and a little more independent, you may need to get reacquainted with self-care and self-prioritization. Don’t think of this as yet another thing to do—this can be fun! Truly. When your kiddos are a little older, there’s space for you again. Space to give back to yourself, rekindle your sense of personal identity (outside of motherhood!) and actually do what you want with your time.
Why self-prioritization matters
Self-prioritization is important because it’s a primary way that you can intentionally add joy and interest back into your life. Those words (joy and interest) can feel so foreign, especially if the baby and toddler years were particularly self-sacrificing and full of anxiety (as they often are). When you prioritize yourself, you’re also sending a clear message both to yourself and your family. That being, “I’m here too and my needs matter.”
At one point or another, most moms need the reminder that your purpose is not just to be a mom. You’re not here on this earth only to take care of your kids, look out for others, give, and care-take. You’re also here to live life to the fullest, get enjoyment out of your days, discover your potential, challenge yourself, feel the full range of emotions, try new things, and just be.
Sometimes we just need an outside source to give us that reminder. I used to sleep sitting upright if it meant my babies would sleep, make sure everyone else had their fav food but forget mine, never drink my coffee hot, and skip my workouts all the time because I put everyone and everything else before me. As a therapist who supports mothers, I regularly hear women tell me that they never make social plans to get out of the house anymore, that they don’t even know what their favourite meal is because they’re always letting their kids/partner choose, or that they miss their friends, yoga group, or book club but they feel guilty about losing touch so they don’t reach out.
At some point, something has to change.
Because if it does, what usually happens is that resentment builds, and you can feel lost and like a shell of who you are.
Can you take a moment (either right now or in the coming days) and reflect on what has been getting in the way of self-prioritization? Is it your family’s needs? Maybe you’ve gotten comfortable looking after others instead of yourself? Are you intimidated by self-care and self-prioritization because you don’t even know where to start? Maybe you feel like it’s selfish, you don’t deserve it, or it won’t work. And maybe there’s just literally no time so it feels impossible. These are all fair reasons. Each one of these concerns is valid, however in the end, feeling burnt-out, disconnected, and like you’re just here to cater to everyone else doesn’t lead to a very full or vibrant life. At least it hasn’t for me and the moms in my world.
Ok so how do you actually put yourself back on the list? Below is a list of annoying simple ways to get started. You can try some, all, or just use this as a starting point to create your own personalized list.
32 annoyingly easy ways to put yourself back on the priority list:
Read for 15 minutes before bed
Say yes to the next invite you get
Call up the friend who you’ve been out of touch with
Pick a movie, a snack, a beverage, and a cozy sweater and block off an hour
Give yourself 20 extra minutes to get ready and do whatever self-care routine calls
Make a playlist of old favourites
Go grocery shopping and add two things to the cart that are just for you
Put your phone on airplane mode and flip through a magazine without distractions
Invest in a favourite tea, juice or coffee and have it every single day
Clean an area of your home where you love to spend time
Tell your partner you need a night off and take yourself on a date or meet a friend
Buy yourself something you always wanted but haven’t allowed
Make a smoothie of fresh fruits and vegetables to energize your body
Get a sun-lounger so that being outside feels like a vacay
Make a travel bucket list ranging from local travel to dream destinations
Pick a special dinner and either learn how to cook it or order it for yourself
Say yes the next time someone offers to walk the dog, watch the kids, or send over food
Get rid of five things in your wardrobe that you hate and replace them
Plan a mini vacation (even if it’s just an overnight) and commit to it
Get yourself fresh cut flowers or a new plant to cheer up a space you love
Get chores done extra early on a Saturday and make time to actually enjoy your space
Lie in the sun and leave your phone inside
Next time you want to say no, actually say it
Get a journal and commit to writing out the three best and worst parts of the day for a week. Notice any changes you need to make?
Go for a walk in nature
Have a social media-free weekend
Sign up for the course/group that you’ve been putting off
Get reacquainted with whatever physical movement you used to love
Play tourist in your own city/town with the kids but don’t do kids-only activities
Have a good laugh, watch your favourite stand-up comedian
Spend time in the garden, backyard or balcony
Buy an adult colouring book and beautiful felt pens and don’t share them!
Hopefully these simple ideas will get the ball rolling! My encouragement for you is to be willing to try. Not everything will feel like a slam dunk, and that’s okay! Just keep trying, because learning how to care for yourself, too, is one of the most important things you can do for your mental health and fulfillment in parenthood. You got this.
For when you actually do cry over spilt milk. (Or lose your sh*$ entirely.)
We all have different levels of stress that we can tolerate. You may already know your triggers and which stressors just drive you berserk. On the other hand, there’s a certain level of stress where you can just shrug your shoulders and take it all in your stride. Mountains of unwashed dishes and a week’s worth of meal prep to do? No biggie. Add screaming kids, an annoyingly loud sports game in the background and you’re running late to an appointment and that could cause a meltdown.
Maybe you’ve seen that meme floating around on social media about how spilling one glass of water can either barely phase you… or totally destroy your day. What that’s getting at is overwhelm, how we handle stress in any particular given moment, and our window of tolerance.
What is the window of tolerance?
There are many ways to understand the window of tolerance. Some might like to think of it as a literal window of what your nervous system can or cannot accept.
Triggers that are manageable allow you to stay inside your window. You simply deal with them, accept them, deal with the minor anxiety they cause, and move on. Those that are too much for you to process though will bring you outside of your window of tolerance—to an overwhelmed or unmanageable and dysregulated state.
You could also think of this concept like a river or container that is holding a normal capacity of water versus one that is overflowing. What are some things in your life that may cause an overflow situation? A baby crying? Family members constantly needing things? Too many deadlines?
It’s important to know that our windows of tolerance aren’t all created equal. Your sister or your best friend might have a much bigger capacity for handling stress than you do. Your spouse or partner may have a much smaller one. Like with all things self-care, having this self awareness and getting familiar with your own window of tolerance is important. For example, say you’re in a new place, there’s tons of noise on the street, your partner keeps asking you questions, and someone continuously keeps ringing the doorbell. That might cause you to flip out. Your super chill friend on the other hand, may barely raise an eyebrow.
What impacts the size of our window of tolerance?
So with that above example, why might it be hard for you to tolerate certain interruptions or annoyances whereas the same triggers may not even bother the next person?
There are so many factors that can impact the size of your window of tolerance. Those can also change over the course of your lifetime. During certain chapters, you may find yourself better able to handle stress. The below list includes some of the main things that could impact you and your nervous system.
Having a past experience with trauma
Going through a particularly stressful time (i.e. dealing with financial stress, relationship difficulty, processing birth trauma, loss, moving, adjusting to parenthood)
Being a highly sensitive person
Being neurodivergent (i.e. having ADHD or being on the autism spectrum)
Dealing with a mental health diagnosis like anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder
Being physically unwell
Being pregnant. Yes, pregnancy can increase nervous system reactivity.
Ok so you obviously know the difference between feeling calm versus stressed out. But how do you know when you’re in a grounded, regulated state, versus when you’re starting to become dysregulated, versus when you’re out of your window of tolerance entirely? That’s an entire topic on its own, but for now, here’s what you need to know:
Grounded state. This is when you feel calm, cool and collected. You’re relaxed in this state. You’re not running through your list of to-dos, ruminating, worrying, or feeling irritated. You’re happy, balanced and unbothered. You communicate effectively and you are showing up as your best self. This is where you want to be most of the time.
Becoming dysregulated. When your nervous system is working hard and you’re getting close to leaving your window of tolerance, you might feel angry, irritated, weepy, upset, or just generally annoyed. That might not be obvious to anyone around you but you feel tense. This could show up as rolling your eyes, feeling resentful towards someone who asks you for something, feeling stressed about your day, feeling overwhelmed, or weepy.
Dysregulated. This is when the banks of that river become so full that they officially burst. Or water starts to overflow over the edge of your container. (Choose your metaphor.) This is when you actually do cry over the spilt milk… or lose your sh*t entirely. Being dysregulated looks like big emotions: snapping, rage, yelling, crying uncontrollably, feeling like you want to hide from the world, having a meltdown, or just losing control to the day’s stressors. It can also look like completely shutting down, where you freeze, dissociate, or check out from what’s happening in front of you. Feel familiar? We all spend time here even though we don’t want to.
Self-regulation and returning to your window
The goal is always to get back inside your window. Easier said than done, I know. This is about intentionally creating calm and regulating the nervous system.
There are a number of ways that you can do this however you want to choose the one(s) that are effective for the situation. For example, humming or breathing mindfully isn’t going to do much for you if you’re in a state of full-blown anger.
This list below is intended to be a starting point of ideas that can help for when you’re starting to become dysregulated to when you’re already there. Which could you try during a moment of overwhelm?
Hum, sing, or sigh. The sound vibrations in your vocal cords stimulate your vagus nerve activating your parasympathetic nervous system.
Cold exposure. Something like a cold pack or splash of cool water can lower your stress response and bring your attention to the present moment and the physical sensation.
Rock or sway. Bilateral, gentle movement like this can be soothing.
Increase your exhale. Slow your breathing right down and exhale for longer than when you inhale. This is a way to trick your nervous system into bringing you to a calmer state.
Dance. When you’re way outside of your window of tolerance, direct that energy through vigorous movement like shaking it out to a fast beat.
Run. When the energy gets intense (like anger or rage), running or fast walking is one of the best ways to expend it.
Regulating your nervous system, understanding your window of tolerance and getting familiar with your personal triggers are all some of the best things you can learn to facilitate better self-care and an easier experience no matter what phase of life you’re in. I teach moms exactly how to do that. (What would I even be doing here if I didn’t?) My course, Mama Calm is all about understanding how anxiety works, getting familiar with how it shows up, and then actually managing it so that the meltdowns happen less frequently and the joy has space to come in. Learn more here!
In investing in hobbies and interests, you’re showing yourself that you matter.
Giving back to yourself is self-care. You may not know it now or, you may logically know that but when it comes to actually practicing it, you may struggle to put the pieces into place. Now, I know that motherhood can turn into a self-sacrificing endeavor. I mean, society pushes the idea of people-pleasing onto us as girls and women throughout the course of our entire lives. That happens even more as a mother when her children are involved.
The mom who sleeps in on Saturday as her husband makes breakfast is seen as lazy or lucky.
The mother who spends money on facials and nice clothes is often seen as selfish or frivolous. The mom who goes out on a Friday night for wine with the girls isn’t prioritizing her family enough. We absorb these messages—even if we don’t agree with them or believe in them. We can take on the expectation of the “mom who does it all,” or silently accept the classic fob off that, “this is just what motherhood is.” Before you know it, you’re pushed off the priority list.
I want to challenge that. Because let’s entertain the worst-case scenario for a moment. That being the one where you give and give and give… until you’re burnt out, depleted, used to running on fumes, and you’ve lost yourself entirely. I’m not forcing you to look at this scenario to fear monger, but to gently urge you to understand what self-identity loss in motherhood is and the negative impact it can have on your wellbeing.
Imagine only ever making others (your kids, your partner, your extended family) a priority and never putting yourself on the list. Ever. If that were to happen for years (and perhaps it already has), you’d lose your spark, right? That you-ness that is so real and vibrant. You may feel disconnected from your former, pre-kids self. You might not like—or be comfortably able—spending time with yourself. You may struggle to make decisions for yourself because you always default to asking someone else. Your confidence and self-esteem would probably tank as a result. And you may eventually just not even know what you like! Your favourite foods, your ideal way to spend a Saturday, where you’d like to go for vacation, what you’d like to do with a spare evening… all of those might just become question marks. That’s a tough scenario to look at, and maybe even one that already feels true. I get it, I’ve felt those things too.
Let’s back up here and define what self-identity actually is. Self-identity is the parts of you that make you who you are. Are you the creative who makes ceramics and writes first thing in the morning? You might be the career-oriented go-getter who always has a workshop, new side hustle, or passion project in the works. Maybe you’re the social butterfly who likes to keep your home neat, decorating and welcoming for those who you have over for Friday night wine and charcuterie. Or you’re the outdoorsy girl who knows the best trails and camping in your area because that’s where you spend your off hours.
Who are you? What brings you joy? What do your friends love about you? What do your family members celebrate about you? If you could go back to a day in the recent past and relive it again, which day would it be and why? These questions are really helpful ones to sit down and ask yourself because they help you get clear on your identity and what makes you the unique person that you are.
How to make personal identity part of self-care
Giving back to yourself and continuing to invest in—and grow—these pieces of yourself is self-care. That’s because you’re recognizing certain needs that you have (i.e. spiritual, creative, social, intellectual) and you’re doing something about it!
Human beings need more than just the physical basics like water, shelter and food. In investing in hobbies and interests, you’re showing yourself that you matter and that you’re also allowed to pursue the extras in life. And that it’s not only your kids/family who are deserving of your time, thought, and energy.
But if you want to make identity growth part of your regular life, how can you actually do that?
Because we all know that motherhood and parenting easily gets in the way. It’s unrealistic to think or expect that you can give yourself the same energy that you may have during other chapters of your life. The baby years are especially tough so during an era like that, the bare minimum might have to do for a while. So of course I’m not suggesting that you book spontaneous weekend trips, stay up until dawn with your friends, or ditch your responsibilities and go off-grid. But what I am suggesting is that you get reacquainted with your old self and invite her into your life—whatever that looks like for you today.
Here are some really simple ways that you can do that.
Easy ways to nurture self-identity:
Journal about what you think the core parts of your identity are, what do you miss about yourself, and what parts you’ve neglected. Prompts: What kind of woman do you want to be? When did you feel most like yourself and why?
Make space for your voice. Pick the Netflix movie. Choose what’s on the menu. Play your music in the background. Hang photos from past travels on the wall. Your opinion matters!
Take up a new hobby (or rekindle your love for an old one). Mine is currently roller skating and I love it! I also garden, do yoga, and travel. It hasn’t always been this way but the point is to find something that works for your life today.
Give yourself some of your time back. What’s manageable? Thirty minutes in the morning? Twenty minutes before bed? An hour after the kids go to sleep? Whatever it is, pick something reasonable and commit to it without guilt. This designated time is your space to walk by the river, read a past favourite author of yours, watch stand-up comedy, cook… whatever!
Why your identity matters to your kids
All of this work around self-identity matters for your wellbeing and it also matters for your children.
When you put effort into yourself and recognize that your personality and interests matter, you’re demonstrating self-love and self-respect. When your kids see that, they are more likely to follow your example and become the types of self-respecting people you want them to become. They get the chance to observe you as a role model and as a person beyond “Mum.” It will click with them that “Mum” is also a strong triathlete, or a compassionate person who dedicates herself to volunteering in the community, or a really talented chef, or the life of the party who lights up the room, or a really intelligent woman who remembers facts from nature documentaries. You get my point. There’s a lot more to you than your role as a mom, and I really want you to help let that part shine.
Another perk: you’re teaching your kids to hold space for other people. If you self-sacrifice in the name of always meeting your childrens’ wants and needs all the time, what do they learn?
Hopefully this post has convinced you that you matter, because you do.
And if you’re feeling as though a loss of sense of self is already an issue, don’t stress! A lot of self-development work is meeting yourself where you’re already at. If you’re feeling a little out of touch with the old you, don’t worry! Think of how you can use some of these new habits, self-reflection questions and journal prompts from this post so that you can be in a totally different place one month, six months, or a couple years from now! You got this.
When we detect a threat—even if it’s a modern-day stress like pinging notifications or your kids fighting—our nervous system responds.
If you’re someone who has been working on personal growth, wellness, and self development, then by now, much of your social feeds and reading material will mention the nervous system. You’ve probably heard about nervous system regulation, calming your nervous system, or feeling like your nervous system is out of control. But what does all of that mean? What exactly are we talking about when we mention the nervous system? What is it and why does it matter so much?
I’m going to break down all that in this post because you can’t tend to (or regulate) your nervous system if you’re not even totally sure what it is. Consider this blog post like your nervous system 101.
What is the nervous system?
When I say “fight or flight” mode, does it throw you back to high school science? It does for me! Let me break down why these concepts are still relevant today.
You and your body are primed to constantly assess threats and danger and react accordingly. Think of your nervous system as having this very sensitive internal surveillance scanner that is working 24/7 to scan everything in sight (and sound, feel, etc) to make sure you know about any possible threat coming your way. It takes in a ton of information!
Going a little deeper, essentially the nervous system is like the body’s ultimate communication system. It’s a network made up of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to keep everything in sync. It would sort of be like the main communicator that coordinates and regulates all the body’s functions.
So, what does the nervous system actually do?
Its job is to send messages to parts all over your body. From moving your arm to reach for that top shelf to receiving the warmth of a hug, your nervous system is in charge of all of that. There are lengthy text books all about the nervous system, so we couldn’t possibly get into it all here. But what’s most important for us to understand is that this system is highly connected to mental health, not just physical health. Things like anxiety, depression, burnout, and ADHD, are all highly linked to the nervous system, and when that system is chronically stressed then a person’s mental health usually suffers.
So therefore, we can’t fully address mental health challenges if we don’t look at how the nervous system is functioning.
When we’re stressed (either physically, emotionally, or mentally), or when we perceive there to be a threat, our nervous system kicks into gear to help keep us safe. Let me say right up front that the nervous system doesn’t always get it right: there are many times where it will sound the threat alarm for things that are actually not threatening. This is one of the most important takeaways from this post, and a concept that we’ll build on going forward.
Our job is to notice when we go into a threat-response mode, and figure out if it’s necessary or not.And further, to use skills to calm (regulate) the nervous system so you feel safe again. Phew, it’s not exactly an easy skill, I hear you.
But let’s pause that path for now and talk about the 4 ways the nervous system responds to stress (you might remember talking about this in high school): Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
The Fight Response
The Fight response refers to the innate physiological and psychological reaction triggered by the nervous system when faced with a perceived threat or danger. Notice that word “perceived” … that means that it’s endless what your unique system could see as a threat. The fight response quite literally preps the body for combat by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline levels. People in this state will feel more aggressive or irritable than usual, with a lot of energy that feels like it needs to come out. This is usually the state moms are in when they feel ragey or uncharacteristically snap at their kids or partners (hey, been there!).
The Flight Response
The Flight response is another automatic reaction to a perceived threat. It activates the body’s “flight” mechanism, which makes a person want to escape or flee from danger (or the thing that’s feeling overwhelming or threatening). In this state, the nervous system will cause your heart rate and breathing to increase so that you could efficiently run away quickly if you needed to. Flight mode also creates the urge to avoid or distance yourself from a situation (or person).
The Freeze Response
The Freeze response is a defense reaction that happens where the body basically becomes immobile and the person might also feel emotionally numb. The freeze response can be looked at as a form of self-preservation, because it attempts to decrease the chance of being noticed by something threatening. People who feel like they shut down easily, get quiet, or “check out” might be experiencing a freeze response.
The Fawn Response
Fawn response, also known as appease or please response, is a safety strategy that the nervous system will activate where the person works hard to seek approval, please others, or avoid conflict, usually by being submissive or compliant. The fawn response leads a person to prioritize the needs and desires of others over their own in an attempt to maintain safety or gain acceptance.
The regulated state of the nervous system
Then there’s also one more really important nervous system response that we can’t skip: the calm state (aka parasympathetic nervous system is active).
This is the state most of us are striving to be in for most of the time, and where we are able to feel our best, and act our best. This is where we want to be when we aren’t actually in danger. That is when you can calmly and clearly think, rationalize, and just… be. If you’re thinking in terms of your day-to-day life, this is when you’re cuddling with your kids or partner, laughing, having a relaxed conversation, engaged in a book, or having dinner with your family. We get to be in this state when we can disarm the threat-detection system and show the nervous system that we are actually safe. This takes a lot of skill and practice! (keep an eye out for more resources on this).
Here’s something I want you to remember as you read through this post: the particular nervous system response that kicks in when you are under stress is automatic, you don’t choose this! Usually the response doesn’t really make sense in the moment either (you’ll question why something feels so threatening when you logically know it’s not such a big deal), and that’s because your nervous system is operating from very old school wiring that still thinks we’re cave people whose survival is in question all the time.
Basically, your drive to survive can hijack your nervous system and cause it to become all out of whack. When we detect a threat—even if it’s a modern-day stress like pinging notifications or your kids fighting—our nervous system responds. Sometimes that response is out of proportion to the threat though. Hence why something like your baby waking up from a nap and starting to cry can often feel like a puma is about to attack! This is just your system trying to protect you… but it doesn’t actually have a positive effect at all.
To make matters worse, motherhood can feel like a constant state of overwhelm and stress where stressors cause your nervous system to become dysregulated all the time. Children screaming, kids’ demands/needs, crying baby, work deadlines, running late for an important appointment, forgetting an important meeting, running your kids to programs, or having an argument with your partner.
The Window Of Tolerance
You might notice that some people seem to be able to stay really calm and regulated, whereas others (maybe you?) seem more likely to lose your cool. Why is that?
There’s something called the Window of Tolerance, where there’s this spectrum or window of the numbers or types of stressors that you can manage before becoming dysregulated or stressed. It’s like the threshold for staying calm, and once you pass that, it’s complete dysregulation.
Not everyone is the same when it comes to the Window of Tolerance. For example, after a particularly difficult season, you may not be able to tolerate the sound of a siren plus two kids arguing at the same time. Your partner, on the other hand, might be able to handle said argument, plus a stream of new emails, a jam-packed day and the stress of a pending deadline. We’re all different, and there are many factors that are at play play when it comes to understanding why your nervous system acts the way it does.
I want to make sure to acknowledge that our upbringing and past experiences have a major role in how the nervous system develops, particularly in situations where a person goes through trauma or very difficult experiences. Look to other posts where I dig deeper into trauma and the nervous system.
This is the 101 of your nervous system, what it does, what it’s supposed to do, and why it can sometimes misread a threat and cause stress. What are ways you notice your nervous system kicking into high gear? When does it become dysregulated? Once you’re more mindful of why this system exists, you can start to tune into when it’s working overtime. Note that anxiety and feeling dysregulated are very similar feelings.
If you’re relating to the idea of your nervous system creating high alerts in your body at every little thing, you may want to find some ways to feel at ease in the moment. For that, check out my post on 15 ways to ease anxiety in less than five minutes.