‘TikTok is full of videos about how to regulate your nervous system

‘Hummmmm,’ I sing to myself as I exhale loudly. Then I take a big breath in, feel my ribcage expand and hum again. Next, my hands gently stroke my jaw and chin, then float to my forehead for more caressing. They run down my arms too, gently sliding from shoulder to elbow like I’m protecting myself from a cold breeze. I finish by pulling on my ear lobes for 10 seconds.

I’m sitting alone at my kitchen table as I do this, wondering if the people in the opposite flat can see me through my window and what on earth they’re thinking if they can. It looks weird, sure, but it’s an innocent practice: I’m following along with a ‘nervous system regulation’ video, my phone propped up in front of me as a young woman guides me through the three-minute practice via TikTok.

Just this morning, the algorithm landed me on the side of TikTok where nervous systems are thought to be the key to our health. And it’s not a niche corner of the internet: ‘nervous system regulation’ has over 60,000 posts on the app. And, after watching the videos, I’m convinced mine is broken. But I’m also a sceptic, and I’m wondering – can it really be true that we’ve all frazzled our nerves and in turn ruined our health?

What is a dysregulated nervous system?

Let’s backtrack. The nervous system is a complex web that sends signals around your body, but when people talk about dysregulation, they’re normally talking about the autonomic nervous system. ‘This is a particular branch of our nervous system that controls biochemical reactions that keep us alive and surviving,’ says Dr Sula Windgassen, a health psychologist specialising in supporting people going through chronic health issues. That includes things like our heart rate, breathing and digestion.

There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. ‘The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the “fight or flight” response and the parasympathetic nervous system is, in essence, meant to balance out the sympathetic activation, so that we come back to a balance or homeostasis. Because of that, the parasympathetic state is referred to as the “rest and digest” branch as the body can restore usual function without feeling at risk of being eaten – evolutionarily speaking,’ explains Dr Windgassen. In today’s world, that fear might stem from being late for work or prepping for a big meeting, rather than being chased by a predator.

Dysregulation can occur when we struggle to fall into – or out of – either of these states. ‘We can have an over-zealous sympathetic response so that we feel consistently activated and need to be on the move or engaged in something. We can equally have a parasympathetic nervous system that is “online” for longer than it should be, meaning that it is hard to get activated. From here, our motivation may be affected, our ability to think clearly may be impeded and we might feel really fatigued,’ explains Dr Windgassen.

Despite all of this, ‘nervous system dysregulation is not something that is generally medically recognised and there is not a definitive medical test for this,’ says Dr Windgassen. Indeed, the research into dysregulation tends to focus on autonomic shifts as a result of those with medical conditions. ‘This is known as central sensalisation – the process by which the nervous system (brain and peripheral nerves) have been conditioned to keep sending or amplifying sensory signals, resulting in persisting pain. This can happen for a wide range of biopsychosocial reasons,’ she explains.

Why are our nervous systems dysregulated?

So while your GP likely won’t tell you you’re ‘dysregulated’, it’s true that your body might be struggling to bounce between its parasympathetic and sympathetic states as designed. And that’s because of long-term stress and trauma, explains Dr Windgassen.

‘One of the things that we can pinpoint when we talk about a dysregulated nervous system is the release of ‘stress hormone’ cortisol,’ says Dr Faye Begeti, a neuroscientist and author of The Phone Fix. ‘Typically, this should go up in the morning to keep us alert, and then it winds down at night when we go to sleep. Cortisol rises can also be a good thing because it makes us more alert in situations of danger: our heart rate will increase so we can get more blood out and we can think better. But when we think about dysregulated nervous systems and chronic stress, we lose variability in cortisol and start to get steadily high levels throughout the day,’ says Dr Begeti.

Indeed, studies show that in people with suspected dysregulated nervous systems, cortisol release is much higher, and raised levels of this hormone are associated with typical symptoms of “dysregulation”. ‘Too much cortisol impacts three sections of the brain,’ explains Dr Begeti. ‘Firstly, the pre-frontal cortex, which leads to reduced attention, concentration, willpower and self-control. That area of the brain also has a role in trying to rationalise our emotions, so we become more irritable.

While it also impacts the amygdala which is responsible for activating strong emotions. ‘It means that you might feel hyper-reactive – something minor will happen and it can feel like the straw that broke the camel’s back. And then we have the hippocampus, which is involved in memory – it is not unusual for people with high stress to get memory loss. It can also lead us to have a negative bias at the end of the day, where only the bad parts of our day stick in our brain.’

Indeed, according to symptoms outlined in research, dysregulation is thought to look like being unable to switch off, stress levels peaking repeatedly and disproportionately to different things in quick succession. Being unable to get used to a stressor, that remains present means you can no longer find the energy to respond or react to things – leaving you feeling fatigued, dulled, lethargic or unwell.

Are we all dysregulated?

I think most of us can relate to that feeling. In the past, I’ve personally felt so activated that it feels like someone has pressed ‘go’ on my biological remote – the jittery energy has meant sitting down to complete a task feels impossible, like a game of pinball is going on in my brain. And our stress levels are indeed at huge heights: 91% of people say they faced high or extreme levels of pressure or stress over the past year, according to Mental Health UK’s report released in January 2024, with 29% reporting it to be frequent. Online, all aspects of the way we live are being blamed for these feelings of overwhelm, from how we work, commute, socialise and exercise. So circling back to my original question: could it be that we are all living in a dysregulated state?

‘The things that most people will experience in their day-to-day can be moderately stressful but should be separated from extreme stresses. It’s not the same as losing a family member or being diagnosed with a chronic condition,’ says Dr Begeti. And Dr Windgassen notes that being stressed does not mean your nervous system has failed. ‘Our autonomic nervous system is designed to be reactive and move between states. Having an acute stress response to something we find stressful shows adaption, not dysregulation. It’s expected that if we are in a situation or life circumstance where there are lots of stressors we will feel reactive, have mood changes and get exhausted.’

However, stress can become chronic if we don’t give our bodies time to dip into our parasympathetic nervous system, even after these smaller, moderately stressful, sympathetic situations. ‘For example, there’s a lot of pressure on us in terms of productivity that might lead to people working late at night, which then means they never have time to unwind,’ says Dr Begeti. ‘Their fallacy is that working late at night increases productivity when in fact, if you do fall into that chronically stressful situation, your concentration will reduce and your memory will start to be impacted.’

How to regulate your nervous system

Remember: there’s no clinical way to diagnose nervous system dysregulation. Even cortisol testing isn’t accurate, as having a test in itself is a stressor. You might be able to find out how well your body is dealing with stress by looking at data on a fitness watch – ‘indicators of how well our parasympathetic nervous system can balance us out include things like heart rate variability and blood pressure,’ notes Dr Windgassen – but ‘it should be noted that there are lots of other factors that influence these too,’ she says. And fitness trackers can also be inaccurate and a cause of more stress.

‘It is debatable how useful it is to look for signs of nervous system dysregulation,’ continues Dr Windgassen. ‘As with anything on social media, the science behind it gets reduced down to something that can be “hacked”, forgetting the wider psychosocial picture.’

While there may be some limited research suggesting my hums and strokes could activate my parasympathetic state, it doesn’t fix why I’m stressed in the long run. ‘People’s nervous systems are often dysregulated because of social adversity and the stressful nature of living in modern society,’ says Dr Windgassen. ‘Whether or not the hack works, the issue is that people then become stressed about stress, and a lot of people who consult with me convey the sense that they are managing their stress incorrectly.’

Maybe the humming and stroking are the most engaging way for you to spend time in your day to calm (the idea is that they stimulate the vagus nerve to signal a calm state – and I did feel calmer during them. But doing that every day likely wouldn’t feel like something I’d prioritise). But, if not, then there are other ways to make sure your body is bouncing back into ‘rest and digest’.

What does Dr Windgassen recommend?

  1. Cultivating awareness: ‘Letting yourself notice your physical and emotional states without intervention is a huge way to stop the stress cycle, she says. Hands up who normally panics the moment they feel an ache or notice their mind wandering during work? Instead, try stopping the judgment and shame.’
  2. Navigate inner driving forces that throw you off balance. ‘Often we have internalised belief systems that we haven’t consciously acknowledged that end up steering us towards over or under-doing things,’ says Dr Windgassen. For example, fearing failure, rejection or scarcity means we end up pedalling hard to avoid those things or holding ourselves back from doing so in case we are confronted by them. Journalling and therapy can help us to identify these beliefs and better navigate them to stop the stress that is of our own making.
  3. Prioritise pleasure and connection: ‘We often end up so threat-and-drive focussed that we leave little room for restoration. Each day we should have a sprinkling of comfort, pleasure and connection to support relaxation, rather than confining it to just evenings or weekends or holidays. These don’t need to be big things. The concept of savouring or glimmers is relevant here,’ she says.

These tips feel much more accessible to me than tapping and humming at my desk. But seeing the viral content on TikTok did make me think about how much time I spent in my activated state – and shocked at what it might be doing to my body. In a world where prioritising rest is deemed unproductive, learning how to calm down feels like the best thing I can do for my body.

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