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Help, my nervous system is out of control

What is a nervous system to do?

Our children feel it, we feel it. When under stress our thoughts tend to take us into the future with worry. Right now, during the pandemic children all over the world are in a variety of new learning situations for school. Parents are worried. Parents of young children are worried about the impact of online school due to the lack of socialization and learning through play and sharing. Parents of older children are worried about how this will affect their child’s ability to get into college or be successful in life after graduation. We are all worried and wondering if our child is really learning what they need to learn and questioning if they are missing out. We are living in the year 2020, yet we are bringing the worry about some future event into the now.

The stressors you are under cause you to become emotionally dysregulated, and if you are dysregulated then your children may also be feeling dysregulated.

My clients often ask, “What am I supposed to do when I am feeling so dysregulated and I still have to parent my children?”

Essentially, they are asking, when I am dysregulated, how can I show up for my children?

This question applies to all life stressors not just the pandemic, online school and the current ways we have had to significantly alter our day to day lives.

It is up to you, the parent, to first regulate your own nervous system. Once your nervous system is regulated then you can show up for your children and help them by becoming their co-regulating partner. You do this for and with them, no matter how old your child is. Let’s explore how to do this through the lens of Polyvagal theory. Polyvagal theory gives a framework to understand your autonomic nervous system.

What is the autonomic nervous system?

The autonomic nervous system is always behind the scenes working and taking in the environment. Assessing what we see, feel, hear, and sense for cues of safety and cues of danger. This is called neuroception. The autonomic nervous system is always perceiving what is going on in our lives, in each and every moment. We react or respond based on whatever is coming into our autonomic nervous system through neuroception.

Based on our experiences, we respond through a hierarchy of one of three autonomic states when outside information comes into our awareness.

 The 3 autonomic states are:

  1. The Ventral state. We feel safe and connected here. When we are in this place we respond, we do not react. We feel good, balanced, calm and connected. We also feel safe in our environment. When we are in this feeling of safety and connection we can pause, look at the situation with some objectivity and then thoughtfully respond.
  2. The Sympathetic state. Mobilization, fight or flight. Mobilization gets us moving and taking action which can be a good thing. However, many times mobilization is fueled by anxiety and/or fear. Not enough to cause collapse but enough to cause us not to function at the highest level we can function at, usually we react. Many of the times these reactions are not in our best interests or the best interest of our child. These reactions can look like yelling, punishing or other reactions that make no sense and much of it comes from a place of fear.
  3. The Dorsal Ventral State- Feeling immobilized or collapsing. We shut down because outside influences are way too much for us.

These are the three states of our Autonomic Nervous System. Our children have these 3 states as well. We are born with them and they develop over time. When we learn how to regulate our nervous system, we can be a co-regulating partner for our child’s nervous system. That is the key.

Become a co-regulator.

Tips and tricks, you can use to regulate yours and your child’s autonomic nervous system.

  1. Begin to be aware of your own nervous system by asking questions like: What is happening within you when you become overwhelmed or triggered by your child or an outside event? What happens within your body when you think about how you feel in relation to the trigger? You may feel or experience fear, confusion, anxiety. You may feel like a victim and may wind up shutting down or becoming very anxious. These reactions bring us into either a dorsal or sympathetic state. We do not function optimally when in those states. The goal is to move up the hierarchy into a ventral state.
  1. When you feel these big feelings of anxiety ask yourself these questions:

 “In this moment that I am in, what is the response I need in order to begin to feel better? “

 “Where am I feeling it in my body?”

 “What does my body need to do right now to feel more calm and balanced?”

– Maybe you need to take a few breaths, grab a glass of water, take a walk, sit in quiet, stretch or anything else that helps you move into a place of balance inside.

 -You are now tuning into and taking care of your nervous system. When you take care of your needs you can move from anxiety into the calm place of safety, the ventral state. 

  1.  Once you are back in safety then you can ask: What does my child need, in this moment, right now from me?

If you respond to your child from a place of anxiety, fear or uncertainty without taking care of you first, your child will respond to your anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Your child will mirror back to you the state you are in.

             Your child’s nervous system reads your nervous system.

Autonomic nervous systems communicate with one another. This is why we need to take care of our autonomic nervous system first, before interacting with our child. Once we become aware of this, we can regulate ourselves, this sends our child cues of safety. In other words:

            Your calm nervous system calms their nervous system. 

Ways to create autonomic safety for your child’s nervous system:

  1. The tone of your voice– Prosody- when we speak in a calm, soft tone of voice your child’s nervous system will calm down. The research has shown that the tone of your voice actually matters more than what you are actually saying.
  2. Non-language sounds like hmms, ahhs and ah-ah allows your child to know they are being heard. This non-language sound is called a vocal burst and it lets your child know I hear you and you are safe telling this to me.
  3. Tilt your head– when you are listening to someone, tilt your head to the right or left. This creates safety. This goes back to our primitive brains and our basic needs for safety. If the neck is exposed, you are at risk. If you show your neck to another you let their nervous system know there is no risk here.
  4. A soft stare or soft eye contact. A soft gaze
  5. A welcoming facial expression. Smile with your eyes.

Three essential elements to help your child’s nervous system feel safe:

-Our nervous systems need these three elements to feel safe during uncertain times.

  1. Context: Information- We need answers to the questions of who, what, where, when and why. Giving this kind of explicit context and information gives our nervous system enough information that lets us know we are safe.
  2. Choice: Choice helps our nervous system feel safe. We need to find creative ways to create choices. This will be different for each child based on their needs and learning abilities. If your child is old enough, include them in coming up with creative choice.
  3. Connection: This is key, and it goes hand in hand with conscious parenting. Connection over correction. Keep coming back and ask yourself how I can be most connected with my child right now. We want to have connections to help them feel safe to decrease anxiety and strengthen the relationship.

Examples for creating safety:

-Have a dance party on a break.

– Give a hug.

– Give a cue of safety: sing a song softly into their ear that you used to sing when they were a baby while you rock and hug them. This works to calm their nervous system because the subconscious mind will remember. This will help them feel safe and help their nervous system regulate. What are the things you can bring forward from the past that used to be a cue of safety for your child and use it in the present?

-You are only limited by your imagination.

Have compassion for yourself and your child. This is a learning process. The more you learn about your own nervous system and how to regulate yourself, the better you will be to help them regulate theirs. You are your child’s co-regulating partner.