Many patients experience multiple symptoms across the following categories:
- Executive function: inattention, poor concentration, memory problems
- Sleep: insomnia, frequent night waking, chronic fatigue, sleep apnea
- Somatic: Chronic pain, involuntary movements, unexplained sensory abnormalities
- Digestion: chronic constipation, nausea, heartburn
- Autonomic function: exercise intolerance, vertigo, dizziness, fainting
- Mood and emotions: panic attacks, anxiety, depression
The presence of multiple symptoms across the nervous system may indicate nervous system dysregulation.
What is Nervous System Dysregulation?
Over the last 20-years, research has demonstrated how the nervous system can adapt to a single stressful or traumatic event, or an accumulation of small stressors. These adaptations create dysregulation within the nervous system and can result in symptoms that involve the whole body.
For example, symptoms of hyperarousal such as insomnia, constipation, tremor and hypervigilence, indicate that the sympathetic nervous system is activated all or most of the time. If the parasympathetic nervous system is chronically activated, someone may experience symptoms of hypoarousal, such as dizziness, chronic fatigue and “brain fog”. Some patients have a combination of hyperarousal and hypoarousal symptoms, as their autonomic nervous system bounces back and forth between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation. An example of this, is when patients are chronically tired, but unable to sleep.
Symptoms associated with nervous system dysregulation are notably exacerbated by stress which can come in many forms: illness, minor injury, exercise, social rejection, academic or other performance pressure. Patients often report that they are unable to bounce back from these, or other day-to-day stressors.
Intervention usually starts with education and bringing awareness to how stress affects the nervous system and its many different functions. This can be a validating experience for many patients, since many have been told that their symptoms are “all in their head”.
From there, everyone’s journey is different. Patients often benefit from tools for emotional regulation, physiological regulation, and co-regulation, which involves working with the family or spouse. I often teach HeartMath techniques and recommend heart rate variability biofeedback, which patients can use on their own. Sometimes I recommend psychotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), or Brainspotting.
When patients are able to self-regulate emotionally and physically, they become more empowered. A regulated nervous system is able to rest, digest, repair and recover from life’s everyday stressors, ultimately leading to improved health and well-being.