Imagine this scenario. It’s the Saturday morning after a long, stressful week. You’re in major need of self-care and some time spent relaxing with your family. Instead, the microwave is beeping, cartoons are on, noise from the street is audible, and your two kids are talking over each other trying to get your attention. Yikes! It’s way too much. You feel like you’re about to blow up.
Relatable? If you’re a mom of young children or babies, this probably feels familiar. Situations like these are the perfect example of why we talk about nervous system regulation. This refers to the practice of physically calming your system down so that you can return to a state that is calm, rational, and grounded.
“Nervous system regulation” is a term popping up all over the place these days. (If you run in circles that talk about mental health or if you engage in a lot of wellness content.)
So why do we even talk about this? And why is nervous system regulation particularly important for mothers?
In a nutshell, your nervous system is kind of like your personal surveillance system that’s designed to keep you (and your family) safe. It’s always running in the background looking for potential threats. The problem? It can be pretty sensitive sometimes and becomes activated unnecessarily. (Like during the Saturday morning example I shared above.)
When this happens, you feel tense, on edge, unable to relax, hypervigilant, and you’re more likely to snap at your family or show up in a way that’s not aligned with how you want to be.
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, quick to anger or always stressed, these strategies will enable you to bring yourself back down to calm in the moment. (Even when your kids are around!) :
- Breath work. There are a lot of different styles of breath work that will help you regulate your nervous system. Try them out and see which one (s) work for you! Some examples of breathing exercises include: box breathing, belly breathing, yoga breathing, or extended exhales. When trying box breathing, inhale as you visualize drawing one side of a box. Hold your breath for the duration of the next side. Breathe out for the third side and hold for the final one.
- Movement. Give all that nervous energy somewhere to go! And no, this doesn’t have to be an intense cross fit session. Don’t overlook the benefits of something as simple as a walk. The over and back bilateral stimulation regulates your nervous system. Plus, getting away from the things that are causing stress will be a good reset. Being outdoors in an environment with forests, rivers, and clean air is known to reduce cortisol.
- Use your voice. You don’t have to be the next Rihanna to enjoy the perks of singing (or humming if you prefer). When you activate your voice, you’re stimulating your vagus nerve which in turn calms your nervous system. Pretty cool, right? Singing or humming isn’t the only way to do this: you can also gargle or flap your lips.
- Physical touch. You’ve probably heard of the cuddle hormone, oxytocin. When you cuddle or hug a loved one (or snuggle the family pet), you decrease stress, lower your heart rate, and stabilize your nervous system. If no one is in the house with you, you can do this for yourself by using a weighted blanket or even hugging yourself firmly.
- Rocking. Rocking from side to side soothes your nervous system for many of the same reasons that walking does. The bilateral stimulation in your body brings you back to a state of calm as gentle, rhythmic rocking releases endorphins and improves your mood. There’s a reason why parents rock their babies in order to stop their crying and that works for you too!
- Cold exposure. Sometimes when we’re triggered and our nervous system is kicked into high gear, we feel hot, sweaty and unable to cool down. For this reason, I’m recommending cold exposure. This can look like grabbing an ice pack from the freezer and placing it on your chest. Or, consider taking a cool shower.
- Shake it out. When you feel that fight-or-flight mode kicking in, try stopping in your tracks and taking a quick minute to literally shake it out. Direct that burst of energy into a quick dance session or shake your hands and arms. You can also try stomping your feet or doing heel drops. (Lifting and lowering yourself to the ground by lifting yourself to your toes and then dropping back down so that your heels are flat on the floor.)
Regulating your nervous system is a hot topic right now for good reason. And it isn’t something you usually learn in a day. This is about more than just calming down. You have to actually learn how to physically do that. If this is speaking to your experience lately, I have two resources that can help. My workshop with therapist Jana Jesson is here. If anxiety is at the root of your overwhelm, consider my bestselling course, Mama Calm, which addresses all things anxiety.