Neurodivergent Nervous System
Written By Megan Anna Neff
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For many neurodivergent people, a nervous system reset is necessary sometimes to self-regulate the body. The nervous system is a complex thing. This month, I'll be creating more content unpacking the neurodivergent nervous system.
For today, I am providing an overview of the Autonomic Nervous System and its role in responding to stress.Scroll to the bottom for strategies to learn practices that help to retune and reset the nervous system.
Before a Nervous System Reset
It’s helpful to understand what’s actually going on in the body. Let’s talk about the different parts of the nervous system responsible for stress and relaxation:
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for moderating our bodies' response to external and internal stressors. The ANS is made up of two branches:
the Sympathetic Nervous System ("Fight-or-Flight")
the Parasympathetic Nervous System ("Rest-and-Digest")
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for arousing and mobilizing our body for action. This system is what activates our "fight-or-flight" response.
The parasympathetic nervous system calms our bodies and aids the "rest and digest" process.
These two systems control the same organs; however, they work in opposite directions. Think of the sympathetic mode as the gas pedal and the parasympathetic mode as the brake pedal. When the nervous system is healthy, these two systems work in harmony to bring balance to the body.
Sympathetic Nervous System
When we experience a threat, our bodies may become sympathetic dominant, commonly referred to as the "fight-or-flight" response.
When our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, several things happen: we get a big shot of adrenal/epinephrine, and our stress hormone, cortisol, increases.
These hormones are designed to give us the energy to fight off the threat. Other physical responses to the fight or flight process include—
Pupils dilate so that we can take in more information(Video) 15-Minute Guided Meditation to Reset Your Nervous System
Heart rate increases
Blood diverts from our digestive tract to our muscles
These physical responses are helpful and lifesaving on the rare occasion we are out in the woods and run into a dangerous animal. However, it's not so helpful when sitting in a classroom, and our fight-or-flight response gets tripped. We then have excessive energy with limited outlets to release it.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system (the brake pedal) slows down specific responses within the body and helps the body get into a state of calmness. When in the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, we can slow down, calm the body, rest, relax, and sleep. Parasympathetic engagement promotes healthier digestion, repairs body cells, and fosters sleep.
When our body is in the parasympathetic nervous system, it experiences the following:
Reduced heart rate
Slower (deeper) breathing
Soft eye focus
Increased digestive enzymes
Stimulates bile (digestion)
Our ability to activate the relaxation response and down-regulate our body is directly connected to our vagal tone. ADHDers and Autistic people tend to have reduced vagal tone, meaning it is more difficult for us to activate our relaxation response and recover from the stress response.
Dorsal Vagus Shutdown
When working in harmony with the sympathetic mode, the parasympathetic mode helps us stay within an ideal window of activity (also called the window of tolerance). However, when under extreme stress, the dorsal vagus nerve (part of the parasympathetic system) will initiate a shutdown of the system.
Just like our bodies can become sympathetic dominant during stress, they can also become parasympathetic dominant in response to stress and shut down. The dorsal vagus activates during extreme stress and causes immobilization, often referred to as the "freeze" response.
The freeze response is an extreme version of the parasympathetic nervous system involving the shutdown of the system, resulting in feeling foggy, disconnected, and a general sense of dissociation. When escape is not an option, we may shift from sympathetic mode to complete shutdown (dorsal vagal shutdown).
Significance for ADHD and Autistic Nervous Systems
ADHDers and Autists tend to have more sensitive nervous systems, meaning we are more easily shifted into a stressed state.
For the neurodivergent person, a loud sound, unexpected change to plans, or unexpected touch can trip our fight-or-flight response. And then, because we have a less flexible nervous system, it will be more challenging to get back down to our baseline. For this reason, many ADHDers and Autists experience life through a sympathetic-dominant mode of being.
To Summarize: when we are stressed, emotionally taxed, tired, or sensory overloaded, our nervous system is dysregulated. This is the body's natural response. In these moments, our nervous system needs a "reset" to get back to baseline.
Because ADHDers and Autistic have more sensitive nervous systems. We benefit from more daily resets. Here are a few practices that help to reset the nerve system:
13 Strategies for a Nervous System Reset
Chew on Ice
Chewing on ice is grounding and can also help with sensory overload. Chewable fidgets can function similarly.
Three Deep Breaths
Deep breathing helps to trigger the relaxation response and move us out of our fight-or-flight response.
Stim Through It
Stimming helps to move the excess energy through. You may need to move the extra energy through before being able to engage in down-regulating and relaxing practices (like breathwork and progressive muscle relaxation).
Cold showers improve dopamine and vagal tone, which improves our ability to move out of the fight-or-flight response.
Tapping is another powerful grounding strategy. By tapping on certain pressure points, this also helps to activate the relaxation response and move us out of fight-or-flight mode.
Put on Music and Dance
Music can increase dopamine and works as a great mood reset. Dancing helps move the energy through and can provide grounding.
Hum, Chant, or Sing
Humming, chanting, and singing activates the vagus nerve, which activates the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system) and helps the body move out of the fight-or-flight response.
Spend Time with Your Pet
Pets can help co-regulate and down-regulate our nervous system. If you are playing with or petting your pet, this serves as an extra sensory grounding strategy.
Use a Weighted Blanket
Weighted blankets also help to activate our relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system) and down-regulates the body. This helps us move out of the fight-or-flight response (alternatively, you may consider a weighted lap pad).
Go on a Walk
Walks are grounding, increases dopamine, and helps to move excess energy through. If done outside, the fresh air is a bonus.
Hold a Fan in Front of Your Face
The cool air is both groundings and helps to down-regulate the body.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This is one of my favorite strategies for activating the nervous system. This is a powerful way to activate the relaxation response, down-regulate the body, and reduce muscle tension. Dartmouth has a recording you can listen to that will walk you through aprogressive muscle relaxation exercise.
Essential oils like lavender, lemon, and others have been shown to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) and encourage relaxation, rest, and improved sleep. As a bonus, the more you do this, your brain will start to pair the smell with relaxation, which will further support relaxation.
The Neurodivergent Nervous System (Personal Use)
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Megan Anna Neff
What is the nervous system reset model? ›
Whether you are negotiating everyday life stress or traumatic stress, Nervous System RESET is an educational and somatic-based wellness model that teaches you how to work with your body to better manage and mitigate the effects of stress in your body and in your life.How do you reset the nervous system in the vagus nerve? ›
Some of the most popular ones feature simple hacks to “tone” or “reset” the vagus nerve, in which people plunge their faces into ice water baths or lie on their backs with ice packs on their chests. There are also neck and ear massages, eye exercises and deep-breathing techniques.How do you realign your nervous system? ›
- Rest often.
- Eat well.
- Practice deep breathing.
- Cultivate contentment.
- Recognize who and what provides you with energy vs who and what uses up your energy.
- Train your mind to stay out of negative emotions such as worry, fear, anger, guilt.
- Meditation and progressive relaxation.
- Identifying and focusing on a word that you find peaceful or calming.
- Exercise, yoga, tai chi, and similar activities.
- Spending time in a serene natural place.
- Deep breathing.
- Playing with small children and pets.
Symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system
A dysregulated nervous system can cause mental health symptoms such as anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, depression, insomnia, poor attention, poor memory, addiction, exhaustion.
Nerve cells can regenerate and grow back at a rate of about an inch a month, but recovery is typically incomplete and slow. This is a complete nerve injury, where the nerve sheath and underlying neurons are severed. If there is an open cut, a neurosurgeon can see the cut nerve ends at surgery and repair this.What are the 4 activities our nervous system controls? ›
The nervous system transmits signals between the brain and the rest of the body, including internal organs. In this way, the nervous system's activity controls the ability to move, breathe, see, think, and more. The basic unit of the nervous system is a nerve cell, or neuron.What happens when you over stimulate your nervous system? ›
Symptoms of an over active or dominant sympathetic nervous system are: anxiety, panic attacks, nervousness, insomnia, breathlessness, palpitations, inability to relax, cannot sit still, jumpy or jittery, poor digestion, fear, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, to name but a few.What happens if you over stimulate your vagus nerve? ›
When the vagus nerve is overstimulated, the body's blood vessels dilate, especially those in the lower extremities, and the heart temporarily slows down. The brain is deprived of oxygen, causing the patient to lose consciousness.Where do you massage the vagus nerve? ›
In a vagus nerve massage, moderate pressure is applied to the area between the trapezius and sternocleidomastoid muscles in the neck/shoulder area and at the muscles below the base of the skull, with twisting or stroking motions .
Where do you ice your vagus nerve? ›
By stimulating your vagus nerve with cold temperature, you are activating it which helps to signal your body to relax. To activate your vagus nerve try placing a cold compress on the back of your neck or chest for several seconds up to 15 minutes.What vitamin is good for nervous system? ›
Neurotropic B vitamins play crucial roles as coenzymes and beyond in the nervous system. Particularly vitamin B1 (thiamine), B6 (pyridoxine), and B12 (cobalamin) contribute essentially to the maintenance of a healthy nervous system.How long does it take to rewire your nervous system? ›
In some people, the brain rewiring process can take a month. In others, it can take several months. The good news is that the human nervous system is neuroplastic, meaning it can change for the worse and the better.Which juice is good for nerves? ›
Berries, peaches, cherries, red grapes, oranges and watermelon, among others, are loaded with antioxidants, which help to decrease inflammation and reduce nerve damage. Plus, grapes, blueberries and cranberries have been found to be full of a powerful anti-inflammatory compound called resveratrol.Does crying reset your nervous system? ›
"[Crying] activates the parasympathetic nervous system and restores the body to a state of balance."Can emotional trauma cause nerve damage? ›
According to recent studies, Emotional Trauma and PTSD do cause both brain and physical damage. Neuropathologists have seen overlapping effects of physical and emotional trauma upon the brain.What are the top 3 nervous system disorders? ›
Among the most common are epilepsy, Alzheimer's, and stroke.
Neurological disorders are central and peripheral nervous system diseases, that is, they occur in the brain, spine, and multiple nerves that connect both.
Vitamin B12 Enhances Nerve Repair and Improves Functional Recovery After Traumatic Brain Injury by Inhibiting ER Stress-Induced Neuron Injury - PMC. The .What fruits heal nerve damage? ›
Fruits. Fruits contain antioxidants that help fight nerve damage and control inflammation. Try to have a serving of fruit daily. Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, grapes, and oranges are all beneficial to the nerves.Which vitamin B is best for nerve repair? ›
Altogether, vitamin B1 (thiamine) plays a pivotal role in the process of nerve regeneration: in nerve cells, it facilitates the usage of carbohydrates for energy production and protects them against oxidative stress, resulting in normalized pain sensation and reduced hyperexcitability.
Which organ controls the nervous system? ›
Think of the brain as a central computer that controls all the body's functions. The rest of the nervous system is like a network that relays messages back and forth from the brain to different parts of the body.What are the 7 major components of the nervous system? ›
The central nervous system (defined as the brain and spinal cord) is usually considered to have seven basic parts: the spinal cord, the medulla, the pons, the cerebellum, the midbrain, the diencephalon, and the cerebral hemispheres (Figure 1.10; see also Figure 1.8).What foods calm the nervous system? ›
Good sources of these vitamins include citrus fruits, berries, dark chocolate and herbal teas such as lavender or chamomile (avoid teas with caffeine). For the B vitamins in particular, choose whole grains and nuts.Can you rewire your nervous system? ›
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural pathways throughout life and in response to experiences. While the brain usually does this itself in response to injury or disease, when humans focus their attention enough, they can slowly rewire these pathways themselves.How do you know if your nervous system is off? ›
A few examples of symptoms that may be caused by a nervous system problem include: Numbness or tingling. Weakness or a reduced ability to move any part of the body (not caused by pain). Tremors, tics, or other unusual movements, such as a walking (gait) change or mouth smacking.Which side of the neck is the vagus nerve on? ›
On the right side, it arises from the trunk of the vagus as it lies beside the trachea. On the left side, it originates from the recurrent laryngeal nerve only. These branches end in the deep part of the cardiac plexus.What disturbs the vagus nerve? ›
This vagal nerve damage can result from diabetes, viral infections, abdominal surgery and scleroderma. Vasovagal syncope: Syncope is another word for fainting. Vasovagal syncope occurs when a vagus nerve to your heart overreacts to certain situations like extreme heat, anxiety, hunger, pain or stress.Does chewing gum stimulate the vagus nerve? ›
Chewing in general can stimulate the vagus nerve (as this Self-Hacked post explains). By activating the vagus nerve, gum chewing can also increase gut movement and secretion of digestive enzymes. One study suggested that chewing on gum could even help new mothers restore bowel functions after C-sections.Does sugar affect the vagus nerve? ›
“When we ingest sugar, it stimulates cells in the gut, and these cells release glutamate and activate the vagus nerve,” Bohórquez explains of his prior research. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that plays a regulatory role in internal organ functions such as digestion.What exercises activate vagus nerve? ›
Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. And this has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone (12).
Does cold shower reset nervous system? ›
We don't know exactly how cold showers relax the body. Theoretically, it can cause a rebound effect in the nervous system. It initially drives a sympathetic (Fight or Flight) response, and a subsequent parasympathetic rebound into a relaxed state.Do cold showers activate the vagus nerve? ›
Exposure to cold.
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.
Drinking water is also a stimulus to the vagus nerve, and may immediately stop a run of supraventricular tachycardia. Not having enough fluid (what people think of as “dehydration”) is another stimulus for fast heart rates, so some additional fluid is a second reason that water may help, though not instantly.What vitamin deficiency causes nervous problems? ›
A lack of vitamin B12 can cause neurological problems, which affect your nervous system, such as: vision problems. memory loss. pins and needles.Which vitamin deficiency leads to nervous disorders? ›
The body needs vitamin B-12 for a range of bodily functions, which include making red blood cells. Being deficient in vitamin B-12 causes physical and psychological symptoms, including nerve problems, fatigue, and difficulty thinking.What naturally helps the nervous system? ›
You Can Naturally Support and Treat Your Nervous System
Some natural herbal and adaptogenic remedies commonly used include ashwagandha, valerian root, lemon balm, Rhodiola, passionflower, Ginko Biloba, chamomile, holy basil, skullcap, St. John's Wort, L-Theanine, hops, catnip, oat tops, ginseng, and more.
Psychostimulant drugs such as amphetamine and cocaine are prototypic drugs inducing neuroplasticity changes, and they have been extensively studies during the last years.What are the 3 types of neuroplasticity? ›
The four forms of functional neuroplasticity are homologous area adaptation, cross-modal reassignment, map expansion, and compensatory masquerade.How do you trigger neuroplasticity? ›
Rewiring your brain might sound pretty complicated, but it's absolutely something you can do at home.
- Play video games. Yes, you read that right. ...
- Learn a new language. ...
- Make some music. ...
- Travel. ...
- Exercise. ...
- Make art.
- Get Enough Sleep. Getting enough sleep each night is one of the best ways to support your brain's natural detoxification processes. ...
- Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet. ...
- Exercise. ...
- Intermittent Fast. ...
- Minimize Toxin Exposure. ...
- Consider Supplements.
What herb calms the nervous system? ›
Nervines include herbs like valerian, chamomile, and passionflower. These herbs provide acute relief to nervous tension, which is why we use these in blends like our Nighty Night® teas to relieve occasional sleeplessness and our Chamomile with Lavender tea for a nervous stomach.What herbs help nerve regeneration? ›
Herbs that are in the “nervine” category can be very nourishing and soothing to the nerve tissue. Among the best are Chinese skullcap, lemon balm, wood betony, St. John's wort, chamomile, prickly ash and milky oats.Why is my nervous system messed up? ›
Disorders of the nervous system
Infections, such as meningitis, encephalitis, polio, and epidural abscess. Structural disorders, such as brain or spinal cord injury, Bell's palsy, cervical spondylosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, brain or spinal cord tumors, peripheral neuropathy, and Guillain-Barré syndrome.
- Blood supply problems (vascular disorders).
- Injuries (trauma), especially injuries to the head and spinal cord.
- Problems that are present at birth (congenital).
Injured nerve cells in the central nervous system typically do not regenerate. However, this part of the nervous system can reorganize in response to an injury. This is called "plasticity." Luckily, the brain has a lot of built-in redundancy.