Our nervous system is a complex network that influences every aspect of our being, including our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.[*] While most of us recognize that our nervous systems are somewhat controlled by our own internal processes, we often fail to recognize the impact that our relationships can have on its regulation. Unhealthy relationships, a toxic workplace, and traumatic experiences can totally throw our nervous system’s equilibrium, leading to dysregulation. In this article, we will explore how our relationships affect our overall well-being and how healing our nervous system can also improve our social interactions.
Social Connections and Relationships
Human beings are social creatures by nature, and our relationships play a vital role in shaping our overall well-being. Positive, nurturing relationships provide us with a sense of belonging, support, and safety. In contrast, toxic relationships, dysfunctional family systems, childhood trauma, peer pressure, and unhealthy working environments can profoundly impact our nervous system’s functioning.[*]
Unhealthy Relationships and Nervous System Dysregulation
Unhealthy relationships can contribute to nervous system dysregulation in various ways. Constant exposure to negativity, criticism, and emotional abuse can activate our body’s stress response system, flooding it with stress hormones such as cortisol. Prolonged stress can disrupt the balance of our autonomic nervous system, leading to chronic activation of the sympathetic branch (fight-or-flight response) and an underactive parasympathetic branch (rest-and-digest response). This dysregulation may manifest as:
- Digestive issues.[*]
The Vagus Nerve and Social Engagement
The vagus nerve, a key component of our autonomic nervous system, is intimately linked to social interaction and emotional well-being.[*] It’s the main pathway of communication between our brain and various organs, including the heart and digestive system. Social engagement and positive social cues stimulate the vagus nerve, triggering the release of neurotransmitters like oxytocin, promoting feelings of trust, relaxation, and connection.[*]
In a dysregulated nervous system, the sympathetic branch may dominate, leading to increased arousal, anxiety, and a heightened stress response. This dominance can result in suppression of the vagus nerve, impacting its ability to regulate bodily functions effectively.
Several factors can suppress vagus nerve function in a dysregulated nervous system:
- Chronic Stress: Prolonged exposure to stress can lead to dysregulation of the nervous system and dampen vagal tone. High levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, can interfere with the functioning of the vagus nerve.[*]
- Inflammation: Inflammatory processes in the body can affect vagus nerve function. Elevated levels of inflammatory markers can suppress vagal activity and disrupt the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS.[*]
- Psychological Factors: Mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, can contribute to dysregulation of the nervous system. These conditions often involve altered ANS activity, including reduced vagal tone.[*]
- Poor Lifestyle Habits: Unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as lack of exercise, poor diet, inadequate sleep, and substance abuse, can impact the function of the vagus nerve and overall nervous system regulation.[*]
Positive Social Cues: Building Healthy Connections
Positive social cues might look like:
- Eye contact with your partner
- Warm hugs from your bff
- Active listening
- A supportive work environment
These cues create a sense of safety and belonging. They signal to our nervous system that we are in a supportive environment, promoting a state of calm and relaxation. When we experience positive social connections and relationships, our body releases neurochemicals that help regulate our nervous system, leading to increased emotional resilience and improved overall well-being.[*]
Negative Social Experiences: The Impact on our Nervous System
Conversely, negative social experiences activate our body’s stress response, triggering the release of stress hormones and heightening our sense of threat. This can include experiences of:
- Being in toxic relationships
Prolonged exposure to negative social cues can lead to chronic stress, dysregulation of the nervous system,[*] and increased vulnerability to mental health issues. Unfortunately, in our current culture of the 50+ hour work week, broken families and internet trolls, these toxic interactions are rife.
Relationships as a path to Nervous System Regulation
Despite the potential negative impact of relationships on our nervous system, they can also be powerful tools for healing and regulation. Healthy, supportive relationships provide a sense of safety and understanding, creating an environment conducive to nervous system regulation. When we feel seen, heard, and validated by others, our nervous system can recalibrate, shifting from a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal towards a balanced state.
So how do we use our relationships as a catalyst for nervous system change? Let’s look at a few examples.
Re-parenting Yourself: Nurturing the Inner Child
One powerful approach to soothing a dysregulated nervous system is through the process of learning how to re-parent your inner child. Re-parenting involves providing the love, care, and support to your inner child that may have been missing or lacking in your early upbringing. By incorporating inner child work exercises into your life, you can start to address unmet needs and create a sense of safety and belonging within yourself.
Re-parenting can involve various practices, such as self-compassion, re-imaging your primary caregivers, inner dialogue, and self-soothing activities. By developing a loving and supportive relationship with yourself, you can gradually heal past wounds and regulate your nervous system in a gentle and compassionate way.
Want to learn more? Check out our blog post on reparenting the inner child.
Not sure if re-parenting is the right approach for you? Take our free inner child trauma test.
Attachment Styles: Understanding Relationship Patterns
Attachment styles, which are formed in early childhood, play a significant role in how we relate to others and regulate our nervous system. There are four primary attachment styles: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Each style reflects different patterns of relating and can influence how we respond to stress and seek connection:
- A secure attachment style is characterized by a sense of safety and trust in relationships, promoting a regulated nervous system.
- An anxious-preoccupied attachment style may experience heightened anxiety and dysregulation in relationships, seeking constant reassurance and validation.
- Those with dismissive-avoidant or fearful-avoidant attachment styles may exhibit avoidance or fear of intimacy, leading to emotional distancing and potential dysregulation.
Understanding your attachment style can help you identify patterns in your relationships and develop strategies for soothing your nervous system.
Want to learn more? Check out our deep dive on attachment styles, and take our attachment style quiz!
Being in a Conscious Relationship: Cultivating Awareness and Connection
Being in a conscious relationship involves intentional and mindful engagement with others, mutual growth, understanding, and co-regulation. In a conscious relationship, both partners are committed to personal development and emotional well-being, creating a supportive and nurturing space for each other’s nervous systems.
Partners can collaboratively explore their triggers and emotional responses, helping each other navigate nervous system dysregulation and find healing. This might look like exploring shared practices such as:
- Emotional regulation exercises
- Addressing attachment patterns
- Cultivating self awareness
By prioritizing open communication, active listening, and empathy, couples can deepen their connection and promote nervous system regulation together.
Co-regulation in Relationships: Finding Stability Together
Co-regulation is the process of mutual regulation between individuals. In a healthy relationship, when one person’s nervous system becomes dysregulated, the other person can offer support and stability, helping to restore balance. Co-regulation in relationships can take many forms, such as:
- Active listening
- Empathetic responses
- Physical touch
- Engaging in soothing activities together
These practices create a sense of safety and trust, promoting nervous system regulation for both individuals involved.
Top 10 Ways to Regulate Your Nervous System in Relationships and Social Situations
Want some easy-to-action tips to start regulating within your relationships? Begin here:
- Prioritize self-care: Engage in activities that promote relaxation and stress reduction, such as exercise, meditation, spending time in nature, or hugging your guinea pig. Prioritizing your own wellbeing means you have more to give yourself, and those around you.
- Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries to protect your emotional well-being and ensure healthy interactions. That’s a big fat no to your boss asking you to work this weekend.
- Seek supportive relationships: Surround yourself with people who uplift and support you, fostering positive social experiences.
- Practice active listening: Truly listen and validate others’ experiences, promoting a sense of connection and safety.
- Engage in positive social activities: Participate in group activities that foster positive social interactions, such as volunteering, joining a hobby group or initiating a flash mob in the middle of the grocery aisle.
- Cultivate self-awareness: Understand your triggers and emotional responses, allowing you to regulate your own nervous system more effectively.
- Seek therapy or counseling: Professional help can provide guidance and support in navigating past trauma and healing from dysregulated nervous systems. You can even explore this with your partner or loved ones in the form of couples therapy. Our very own scientific reviewer, Mark Walstrom, is a wonderful person to support you on this journey.
- Practice deep breathing: Deep, slow breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and calmness.
- Engage in grounding exercises: Use techniques such as mindfulness, grounding, or visualizations to anchor yourself in the present moment and regulate your nervous system.
- Develop healthy coping strategies: Find healthy ways to manage stress, such as journaling, creative expression, or talking to a trusted friend.
Healing the Nervous System: Improved Social Interactions
Our relationships have a profound impact on our nervous system’s regulation and overall well-being. Unhealthy relationships and negative social experiences can contribute to nervous system dysregulation, while positive social cues and supportive connections can help restore balance.
By regulating our nervous system through co-regulation, self-care, and healthy coping strategies, we can improve our social interactions, expand our capacity for stressors, communicate effectively, and form healthier connections.