How to Calm Your Mind, Relax Your Body, and Regulate Your Nervous System for Optimum Health & Wellbeing
I think we can all agree that the past few years have been interesting, to say the least. Living through a global pandemic. Witnessing the ups and downs of life. Changing careers, relationships, beliefs, or perhaps even your view of the world.
Whether your experience has been chaotic, challenging, beautiful, transformative, or all of the above – it’s safe to say your nervous system has been through a lot.
The truth is, most of us are operating with elevated levels of stress – so much so that we may not even be aware of it. For women in particular, stress seems to be an unavoidable part of life, as we often balance responsibilities both at work and at home. In fact, a 2016 study showed that women are twice as likely to suffer from severe stress and anxiety than men.
As women, we often aspire to do it all…to be the “perfect” mom, daughter, partner, or business owner. We do everything we can to meet the needs of others, but rarely take the time to nourish ourselves.
And when we don’t reach this unattainable ideal, we feel guilty, and even more stressed. It’s truly a vicious loop that is, undoubtedly, taking a toll on our overall health and wellbeing.
How Does Stress Affect Women’s Health?
Stress presents itself in many different ways. For women, symptoms can include:
- Depression or anxiety
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- Headaches or migraines
- Lack of energy, motivation, or focus
- Social isolation
- Fertility issues
- Irregular periods or PMS
- Stress-related weight gain
- Gastrointestinal issues (upset stomach, gas, bloating, or IBS)
- Heart problems
Read on for 13 powerful practices you can use to help heal, nourish, and regulate your nervous system:
1. Believe You Deserve It
The first step towards regulating your nervous system is to believe that you are worthy and deserving of healing.
Recognizing and truly believing that you are worthy may feel challenging at times, especially if you have negative or limiting beliefs programmed into your psyche from childhood.
But the truth is, you do not have to do anything to be worthy of love, happiness and fulfillment. You are worthy simply because you exist.
Whenever you notice thoughts or feelings of shame, self-judgment or unworthiness, use it as an opportunity to remind yourself of how capable, worthy, and resilient you truly are. You are more powerful than you could possibly imagine, and you are so much more than the thoughts that have kept you small.
In need of a little reminder? Try one of these meditations:
- 10 Minute Guided Meditation on Worthiness
- “You are Enough, You are Worthy” Meditation
- “I am worthy” Hypnotherapy Session
The vagus nerve – the largest nerve in your autonomic nervous system – connects the brain and digestive tract and is responsible for regulating your parasympathetic nervous system.
Meditating is one of the most powerful ways to increase parasympathetic activity. It will bring your body in a state of calm, telling your vagus nerve that there is no need for a fight-or-flight response.
A meditation practice can be as simple as focusing on your breath for a few moments. To practice a simple form of meditation, find a comfortable, upright position, close your eyes, and observe the sensations of breathing. If you get distracted by a thought, notice it briefly, and then gently guide your attention back to the breath. By practicing this technique regularly, you will begin to develop mindfulness in all aspects of your life.
If you have a challenging time quieting the mind, start with listening to soothing music or follow a recorded guided meditation.
- Find Your Zen – 5 Minute Meditation for Stress Relief
- Clear Your Mind – 10 Minute Guided Meditation
- Reset Your Nervous System – 15 Minute Guided Meditation
- Deeply Relaxing Meditation to Calm your Nervous System – 20 Minute Meditation to Release Stress and Anxiety
- Create a Safe, Relaxed Nervous System – Breathwork & Meditation
- Vagus Nerve Activation – Healing Guided Meditation
If you’re still struggling to benefit from seated meditation, there are many meditation alternatives you can try, such as a walking meditation, yoga nidra, or breathwork.
Meditation Apps: Insight Timer, Balance, Waking Up, Calm, or Headspace3. Focus on Your Breath
Five to twenty minutes a day of deep breathing through the nose is clinically proven to reduce stress levels and activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
By consciously focusing on your breath and learning different techniques to amplify its therapeutic benefits, breathwork can serve as a valuable tool. During times of difficulty or stress, your breath becomes your best guide.
You can stimulate the vagus nerve by taking deep, deliberate breaths from your belly. The tendency with stress is to take short, shallow breaths, so shifting to long, deep breaths will help shift the nervous system. Generally, your nervous system is best supported through lengthening and deepening the exhale.
While more complex practices exist, many easy, quick exercises (like this 5 Minute Mindful Breathing Practice) can be worked into your daily wellness routine.
Here are a few other practices you can try:
- A deep sigh is your body-brain’s natural way to release tension and reset your nervous system. Simply breathe in fully, then breathe out fully, longer on the exhale.
- Try the 4-7-8 breath. This involves inhaling through the nose for a count of four, holding for a count of seven, and exhaling through the nose for a count of 8.
- Practice box breathing. Inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, and hold for 4 counts. Repeat for a total of 10 rounds.
- 3 Minute Nervous System Reset
- Vagus Nerve Breathing Practice
- Parasympathetic Nervous System Activation Breathing
- Alternate Nostril Breathing
- Daily Breathing Practices to Relax
P.S. Even something as simple as yawning can make a difference. Yawning is a built-in repair circuit which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and signals rest/digest processes for the body.
Breathwork Apps: Breathwork, Open, Othership, Oak, Balance, iBreathe4. Use Your Voice
Who knew singing in the shower was an act of self-care?
Practices like singing, humming, chanting, and vocal toning create vibrations that massage the section of the vagus nerve near your vocal cords. This stimulates your relaxation response and signals to your parasympathetic nervous system that you are safe.5. Listen to Music or Binaural Beats
Music is a powerful tool for shifting your mood, and the right kind of music can calm the nervous system through – you guessed it – the vagus nerve.
When you listen to music, the vibrations resonate in your eardrums before traveling through the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve is activated, it triggers a parasympathetic response that soothes the body into a more relaxed state.
If you’re feeling stressed, try listening to calming music or binaural beats (like 432 Hz). You can find many different options through Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube, such as this sound healing by Mei-lan Maurits, this music to regulate your nervous system, or this gentle music to calm the nervous system.6. Move Your Body
Regular physical exercise is shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, lower activity of the sympathetic nervous system, and encourage the parasympathetic nervous system. It also increases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline.
There is no specific exercise you should perform, rather, find what feels good for you and listen to your body.
That being said, if you find yourself experiencing a state of fight-or-flight, avoid high-intensity exercise as this can momentarily activate the sympathetic nervous system. Instead, opt for mindful movement to help you release tension and return to a state of rest-and-digest.
Meditative practices like yoga (gentle, yin, or restorative), Tai Chi, Qi-gong, or simply walking can help you release tension and increase the vagal tone, activating your parasympathetic nervous system and your body’s ability to down-regulate.
Bonus Practice: Shake it off. Difficult experiences, including trauma, can build up energy in the nervous system, and there’s some evidence to suggest that shaking can help release it. Shaking, or practices like TRE (Trauma Release Exercises) can help regulate the nervous system and calm the body when it's overstimulated. Consider shaking at home or with a certified provider if you want to ease stress.7. Spend Time in Nature
There are so many benefits to spending time in nature and truly experiencing the beauty of the natural world. Some positive impacts of time in nature include:
- Greater relaxation and feelings of calm
- Reduced risk of stress, anxiety and depression
- Increased resilience
- Stronger immune system
- Lower blood pressure and heart rate
And, of course, spending time in nature activates the parasympathetic nervous system. So find more ways to get outside. Take a walk in the park, go for a hike, spend time in your garden, or try grounding/earthing (walking barefoot to connect with Earth’s electromagnetic field). When you walk barefoot, the Earth’s surface electrons transfer into your body, promoting physiological changes and improved health.
If you’re unable to go outside, research shows that you can still enjoy some benefits by viewing nature photos or listening to nature sounds.
P.S. Exposure to sunlight helps regulate the nervous system by helping the body produce vitamin D and regulating our sleep-wake cycle. Expose your body to early morning sunlight without using sunscreen for 10 to 15 minutes daily. If you don’t have access to natural light, use a light therapy lamp to simulate sunlight.8. Find Ways to Connect
As humans, we are meant to connect and be with other people.
When the vagus nerve is activated, we operate through a system known as the “Social Engagement System”. In social situations where you feel safe and confident, your heart rate and breathing slows, your blood pressure drops, and your stress response switches off.
Relationships with loved ones (and even pets!) can help you regulate your nervous system, so make sure to carve out time for those who matter.
Keep in touch with old friends and develop new relationships with people who share similar interests as you.
Even simple actions such as smiling or saying “hi” to a stranger will help you grow the capacity for social engagement in a safe space.9. Touch
Speaking of connection…hugs and cuddles are two great ways to aid parasympathetic balance. They activate acupressure points that release oxytocin (the love/bonding neurochemical) and send signals of safety to the autonomic nervous system.
Not in the mood to cuddle? Research has shown that placing your hand over your heart and taking deep breaths can sooth your mind and your body.
Hands-on healing and bodywork can also be incredibly therapeutic.
Try exploring different options – like massage, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, rolfing, reflexology or reiki – to see what you like best. All of these therapies can help to turn off your stress hormones, easy emotional tension, and release trauma stored in the body.10. Get Some Sleep
Quality sleep is one of the best things we can do for our overall health and wellbeing. Benefits of sleep include lower levels of stress and anxiety, balanced hormones, faster healing, and so much more.
During sleep, your sympathetic nervous system gets a chance to relax. The parasympathetic nervous system takes over (rest and digest, remember?), and is essential to our capacity to get a good night’s sleep.
Studies have shown that when we're deprived of sleep, sympathetic nervous system activity increases. If you’ve had a stressful day, your sympathetic nervous system will be dominant, your mind will be racing, and sleep will be more challenging. This will result in a poor night’s sleep, as your body struggles to relax and recover properly.
If you often find yourself struggling to fall (or stay) asleep, here are a few ways you can assist your parasympathetic nervous system before going to bed each night:
- Practice a sleep meditation or nighttime breathing exercises
- Use a weighted blanket (the pressure can help activate your PSNS)
- Avoid alcohol or caffeine too close to bed
Coffee and caffeine-containing beverages can be incredibly taxing and stimulating to the nervous system. Caffeine increases heart rate and blood pressure, stimulates the secretion of stress hormones, disrupts your circadian rhythm, and stops the production of adenosine (a key player in making you sleepy).
If you’ve been struggling with anxiety, sleep, or digestive problems, consider changing your relationship with coffee and other highly caffeinated beverages.
How to consume caffeine in a more supportive way:
- Allow your body to wake up naturally. Cortisol levels rise to their peak in the morning. When you allow your body to wake up naturally, before having coffee, you avoid overloading your body with added stimulants and raising your cortisol (the stress hormone) even further.
- Don’t overdo it. Drinking 1-2 cups rather than 3-4 will help reduce your stress response and blood sugar imbalances.
- Switch to organic coffee to avoid toxic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that are taxing on the nervous system.
- Swap it out. Try a turmeric latte, dandelion, chicory, mushroom, herbal coffee, or decaf tea instead.
A note on decaf coffee: If you are going to drink decaf, make sure it’s from a brand that uses a non-chemical based method of decaffeination.12. Nourish Your Nervous System with Food
Opting for the right foods can soothe the nervous system and even boost brain health. For women, it’s especially important to consume a balance of healthy fats, high quality protein, and complex carbohydrates. Fat helps create a healthy brain and nerve tissue, so aim to include more healthy fats into your diet – such as avocado, nuts and seeds, fatty fish, olive oil, coconut oil or ghee (avoid seed and vegetable oils). It’s also best to avoid a ketogenic or low-carbohydrate diet if you are experiencing stress or anxiety.
Some of the best foods to include for your nervous system include:
- Green leafy veggies like spinach, which contain Vitamin B complex, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and Magnesium.
- Other Vitamin B rich foods, like salmon, tofu, green peas, avocado, brown rice, barley, millet, grass-fed beef, liver, eggs, lentils, mushrooms, asparagus, and algae like spirulina and chlorella.
- Broccoli is rich in Vitamin K which is known to improve cognitive skills.
- Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are all packed with vitamins and minerals that the nervous system craves.
- Cacao helps lower levels of cortisol and stress hormones, giving your nervous system much-needed relief. Opt for dark chocolate (at least 70%).
- Fatty fish like salmon have Omega 3 fatty acid and thus helps in healing of the nerves and nervous system.
- Almonds and walnuts have high levels of brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
- Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of minerals and antioxidants that protect the body and brain from free radical damage.
- Green tea contains amino acids and antioxidants that relieve stress.
- Adaptogenic herbs like Ashwagandha can help modulate your stress response.
P.S. Make sure to drink plenty of water, as dehydration is not good for the nervous system. Consider getting a filter like the Berkey water filter system to avoid ingesting fluoride, chlorine, and heavy metals.13. Hot and Cold Therapy
Exposing your body to acute cold conditions, such as taking a cold shower or splashing cold water on your face, increases stimulation of the vagus nerve. While your body adjusts to the cold, sympathetic activity declines, while parasympathetic activity increases.
Cold showers can also help reduce inflammation, relieve pain, improve circulation, lower stress levels, and reduce muscle soreness and fatigue. *Those with heart conditions and high blood pressure may want to avoid cold therapy.
On the flip side, sweating in the sauna while relaxing can also help reset the nervous system and give your adrenal glands a much needed break. A sauna applies heat to your body and gives it a workout similar to moderate cardiovascular exercise. This causes you to relax, burn calories, and calms down that nervous system. Any hormonal production related to stress is given a break in a sauna while you sweat.
For optimum benefits, limit your time in a sauna to no longer than 20-30 minutes, and make sure you are properly hydrated.
The Bottom Line
Finding ways to combat stress, induce a sense of calm, and incorporate self-care is essential – now more than ever.
Learning to engage in nervous system regulation is about understanding what you need to feel grounded and safe. When you work towards nervous system regulation, you create a different way of living. Your lifestyle becomes different and, in many ways, you have to choose — in every moment — how you will interact with yourself and the world around you.
This is how your journey back into balance begins.