We casually reference our nervous systems all the time—it’s highly likely that, at some point, you’ve used expressions like, “My nerves are shot,” or, “That’s getting on my nerves.” Even these little figures of speech can reflect how, in frustrating situations, you might be tempted to blame your nerves for acting up—or stress out about how to calm them down.
But your sympathetic nervous system itself, which is the part of your overall autonomic nervous system that’s responsible for reacting to stress or perceived danger, isn’t actually always at fault when you feel on edge! In fact, your sympathetic nervous system shouldn’t kick into high gear over every little annoying thing.1 Really, it should only be sending warning signals to your body if a significant threat to your well-being is present—for instance, if you’re hiking and you encounter a bear, Thea Gallagher, PsyD, a psychologist at NYU Langone, tells SELF.
Sometimes, your body does misinterpret uncomfortable situations—like an intense work meeting, a confrontation with a friend, or even something that makes you feel put on the spot or self-conscious like public speaking—as actual physical threats. This can trigger the sympathetic nervous system and send your body into fight-or-flight mode.
“Dysregulation of the nervous system happens when you’re in fight-or-flight response” more often than you should be, Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. This dysregulation can occur when your body doesn’t respond to stress appropriately, and it can take a major toll: Research suggests chronic stress can cause depression, anxiety, heart disease, and even cognitive impairment.2
When your sympathetic nervous system is active, it causes symptoms that range from a little irritating to more serious, per the Cleveland Clinic. They can include rapid heart rate and breathing; dilated pupils; trembling; increased blood pressure; and even changes to skin tone, as blood flow to the surface of the body is decreased (so that blood flow to muscles, legs, arms, and the brain can be increased). “It can be really hard to live our lives when our nervous system is [frequently] activated,” Dr. Gallagher says. “[People sometimes think] it’s all in your head. But it’s not in your head, it’s in your body.”
No matter what kicks your nervous system into overdrive—whether that’s going on a first date for the first time in years, scheduling important screenings like mammograms, or walking into a job interview—you can familiarize yourself with how to calm down and reassure your body that it’s not really under attack in certain intense situations—especially if you know what typically stresses you out.
Below, experts explain techniques for how to calm your nerves that may improve your mental health.
1. Do four rounds of the 4-7-8 deep breathing technique.
Since fight-or-flight mode can cause quick, shallow breaths, try breathing exercises when you need to slow things down, Dr. Gallagher says.
A good technique is the 4-7-8 method, Dr. Albers-Bowling says. To try this, find a place where you can sit with your back straight and place the tip of your tongue against the tissue behind your upper front teeth (it should stay here throughout the exercise). Then, exhale completely (through the mouth) to make a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale through the nose for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, then exhale completely through the mouth (making another whoosh sound) for eight counts. Do this at least four times to reset your breathing and help your body calm back down, Dr. Albers-Bowling recommends. (If you try the 4-7-8 technique and it isn’t for you, consider a different practice from our guide to popular deep breathing exercises.)
2. Put on your favorite song—and sing along.
The vagus nerve runs from your brain to your intestines and plays a pretty important role in regulating your body’s everyday functions: Among other things, it impacts your heart rate, digestion, speech, and mood.3