The health risks of a dysregulated nervous system

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Long after the traumatic event has passed, a person’s nervous system can be reactivated when they sense danger, whether the danger is present or not. This feeling of heightened arousal is like being stuck in a “go” or “on” position while at the same time trying to minimize feelings of inner chaos.

Dysregulation of the nervous system can be difficult to explain and equally difficult to experience. These feelings can trigger deep shame, leading to a cycle that is reinforced by the same feelings of fear that the person is trying to escape. Because of these intense and unpleasant emotional and physical experiences, some compare a dysregulated nervous system to having one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake while trying to function.

In the words of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk:

“After trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy is now focused on suppressing inner chaos at the expense of spontaneous participation in his life.

Causes of impaired regulation of the nervous system

One of the greatest predictors of severe dysregulation of the nervous system is childhood trauma, specifically chronic and ongoing childhood trauma. For example, being raised by abusive, narcissistic caregivers or growing up in poverty can affect a child globally. They may experience autonomic dysfunction, sleep disturbances, and emotional dysregulation. Equally common are unexplained memory problems, dizziness or chronic headaches, gastrointestinal problems and muscle aches.

Many children develop a maladaptive stress response (dysregulation of the nervous system) from witnessing domestic violence, being abused or neglected, being bullied, experiencing medical trauma, or having a parent or caregiver who struggles with substance abuse.

Children raised in these conditions can be triggered into a chronic state of the sympathetic nervous system. These children may walk around with clenched fists and be full of angry energy and action. They may walk on eggshells in their home, may find it difficult to relax, and their breathing may be shallow and bloated. Children who experience this type of dysregulation can become adults who are stuck in a “fight” or “flight” response to trauma.

On the other hand, a dysregulated nervous system can manifest as appearing withdrawn, lethargic, or “out of sorts.” Many children who experience dysregulation of the nervous system may be stuck in a “freeze” or “whiteout” trauma response where they experience emotional numbing, dissociation, or depression. They may become “people pleasers” as adults, having been conditioned to seek external approval while putting other people’s needs before their own. Or they may subscribe to “toxic positivity” and “only look on the bright side” to the point where they lose touch with their own vulnerable emotions and the emotions of others.

Other common effects of nervous system dysregulation may include:

1. Thrill-seeking behaviors.

Children who grow up in chaos may be drawn to it in their adult lives. Many who have experienced significant nervous system dysregulation in childhood may not know “how” to feel unless they are engaged in intense experiences that constantly push their physical, emotional, or mental capacities to their limits. Many who find themselves stuck in an “escape” trauma response typically report feeling stuck in their head, where thrill-seeking can offer a momentary break from this pattern.

At one end of the spectrum, some may experience a rush from the effects of workaholism, where working too many hours each week taps into their need for thrills. Others may be at the other end of the spectrum, where dangerous hobbies or patterns of engagement in toxic relationships become their “go-to” thrill.

2. Autoimmune disorders and diseases.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are negative experiences that can happen to a child during the first 18 years of their life. For example, adverse conditions may include poverty, abuse, neglect, abandonment, a parent or caregiver with mental illness, or witnessing domestic violence.

There is long-standing research that correlates higher ACEs scores with an increased risk of a dysregulated nervous system that can predispose a person to disorders or diseases such as asthma, depression, fibromyalgia, headaches, allergies, diabetes, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and even cancer. Research shows that extreme emotional trauma and chronic emotional stress can negatively affect the nervous system and reduce a person’s natural resilience, leaving them vulnerable to physical and mental problems.

3. Hypervigilance.

Hypervigilance is a common result of nervous system dysregulation. With heightened vigilance, a person is constantly on edge, can always expect the worst, and can easily be provoked into a state of anger or violence. Many who have experienced significant childhood trauma become adults who unknowingly find themselves in relationships (with friends or romantic partners) that re-trigger their trauma and maintain a sense of nervous system dysregulation and hypervigilance.

Healing from nervous system dysregulation

Healing requires us to come to terms with our own Lifestyle patterns and emotional stressors (“triggers”). I typically ask my clients to begin tracking their habits and emotional triggers while I create a behavioral plan that includes mindfulness, meditation, somatic experiences, psychoeducation, and several other key lifestyle modifications to support their healing.

If you are experiencing symptoms of trauma, please contact a trauma-informed clinician. To find one near you, visit Psychology Today’s therapy directory.

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