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Nervous System Dysregulation: Signs You’re Dysregulated

5 Mins read

Nervous system dysregulation is experienced by many people, especially while feeling anxious or stressed. Dysregulation of the nervous system does not feel pleasant or comfortable, because when you’re dysregulated, you’ll often feel on edge, agitated, nauseous, or anxious. It’s common to feel both physically sick and mentally distressed during nervous system dysregulation. 

Other common signs of nervous system dysregulation include feeling short of breath, having an elevated heart rate, sweating, or feeling ‘frozen’.

Dr. Mark Walker, Medical Director of Harm Reduction Center, states “Nervous system dysregulation means you are in a fight, flight, or freeze response.”

JF Benoist, a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor and the author of Addicted to the Monkey Mind, explains, “Our nervous system carries memories of both positive and negative experiences. Imagine that every experience we have is filed away into a filing cabinet in our brain. When something happens that looks similar to one of those files, we can often get dysregulated. When it comes to bad experiences, our body tries to protect us from them happening again. This is what’s often happening when our nervous system gets dysregulated—it’s a misguided attempt from our body (once it’s triggered) to protect ourselves from the anxiety, pain or hurt it remembers we experienced.”

What Exactly Does it Mean to be Dysregulated?

Dr. Ben E. Paxton explains, “Our nervous system is responsible for our body’s fight or flight response (sympathetic system) which is activated during emergency circumstances and stressful situations, as well as the parasympathetic system that returns the body to a normal state and calms it down. The two should always be in harmony. However, when the balance is disrupted caused by past trauma, chronic stress, lack of social support, unfavourable living conditions, or from an unresolved past problem, we can become dysregulated. Our body triggers too much fight or flight, not enough rest to balance it out, and nervous system dysregulation occurs.”

Notice how Dr. Paxton explains that nervous system dysregulation is often experienced during an emergency situation or a very stressful situation. Ideally, an emergency or high-stress situation would be the only time you’d experience the symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many people. There are many people who are frustrated that they often feel dysregulated even over simple or minor life stressors. Some people even find themselves dysregulated when nothing is wrong, and nothing is currently stressing them out.

What Causes a Person to be Dysregulated When Nothing is Wrong?

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Dr. Walker explains, “Past experiences that caused anxiety or general nervous system dysregulation can create a memory response in the nervous system. For example, if a traumatic or distressing event happens while grocery shopping, an individual could experience nervous system dysregulation the next time they go to the grocery store. Though the one traumatic event was an isolated incident, an individual could continue to experience fight, flight or freeze because their nervous system is responding as if it is in danger.”

Sometimes, when your nervous system is dysregulated, your body could be on edge as if there’s the sound of an intruder at the door when in reality, you’re in a safe space. You might be at home on your couch, and zero sounds of an intruder occurred, but you suddenly feel dysregulated. Suddenly, your palms are sweaty and your heart is beating fast. You feel anxious and afraid. This feeling that your nervous system is suddenly dysregulated could have been triggered by some sort of thought or memory, rather than an actual threat. Dr. Walker explains, “A person can be dysregulated due to trauma, PTSD or chemical imbalances.” 

Common Signs You’re Dysregulated

Below are some common signs and symptoms of nervous system dysregulation:

  • Elevated or irregular heart rate
  • Anxiety or agitation 
  • Nausea or feeling ‘off’
  • Short of breath
  • Feeling frozen or ‘stuck’
  • Sweating
  • Feeling on edge 
  • Feeling overstimulated
  • Stomach pain
  • Irritable bowel
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating 
  • Irritable mood or snapping at people 
  • Stonewalling
  • Depression

The above are only some of many signs of dysregulation. Sarah O’Leary, a therapist from San Diego, says, “When your nervous system is dysregulated that means some signals are present when they shouldn’t be or vice versa. You might be very stimulated even when there aren’t stimuli around that would call for that level of emotion (like with anxiety or anger). Some signs of a dysregulated nervous system are difficulties in sleeping or eating (too much or too little), difficulty concentrating, memory impairment, irritability, and physical health complications (such as stomach aches or irritable bowels).”

Morgan Hubbell, a therapist from Southern California, importantly points out that the signs and symptoms of dysregulation are different for everyone: “No two people have the exact same symptoms of dysregulation, but some common signs of dysregulation are: heart starts racing, stomach/digestive issues, nausea, headache, sweaty palms/getting clammy, uneven or shallow breathing, fatigue. For some people, dysregulation can also manifest as racing thoughts or feeling like they’re drowning in their worries. For others still, dysregulation can feel like fatigue or feeling frozen all the time. Everyone’s nervous system is a little different.”

What Causes Nervous System Dysregulation?

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Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Morgan Hubbell explains, “The most common source of dysregulation is trauma. Living with the weight of a traumatic event can keep the nervous system in a near-constant state of distress. Other causes of dysregulation can include chronic, long-term stress, such as a stressful work environment, taking care of a sick family member, or financial hardship. Living with chronic stress can lead your nervous system to stay elevated or dysregulated, even during activities that are meant to relax you.”

In other words, you could be watching TV in a safe and relaxing environment, but still, feel dysregulated. As Hubbell explains, for some people this is because of PTSD or past trauma. For others, it’s from living in a chronically stressful environment and being in a constant state of dysregulation. 

How to Tell if a Loved One is Experiencing a Dysregulated Nervous System

Do you have a friend or family member you care for who often overreacts to minorly stressful situations? They could be experiencing a dysregulated nervous system. Dr. Paxton explains, “Pay attention to their behaviour and the way they react to certain situations. Overreacting, getting upset easily over minor stressors, or underreacting are some important indications.”

As Dr. Paxton explains, overreacting could be a sign of a dysregulated nervous system, but underreacting could also be a sign. Why? Because underreacting could indicate that your loved one is feeling frozen (in ‘freeze’ mode) which is another sign of nervous system dysregulation.

If your loved one is stonewalling you, seems off in their own world, or is acting frozen, they might be dysregulated.

Treatment for a Dysregulated Nervous System

People who feel their quality of life is impacted by their consistently dysregulated nervous system should seek counselling.

Counsellors often will provide helpful tips on how you can self-regulate or self-soothe, helping you calm yourself and regulate your nervous system when it’s dysregulated.

Dr. Paxton explains, “It’s important to know how to regulate your nervous system because it’s only when we are in our most regulated state that we can feel safe, calm, connected, and social with others. It’s just as important that our nervous system is ready and able to activate when it believes there’s a threat. But we don’t want to stay stuck on high alert. Though our body is designed to re-regulate naturally, when it gets stuck we may need help. This is why we learn tools to self-regulate. This way, we can bring ourselves to a state of presence, connection, and expression.”

The list of ways you can self-regulate is a mile long. You should experiment and keep note of what helps regulate you. For example, you can learn grounding techniques, go out and exercise, use music, do breathing exercises to slow your heart rate or go to a place that helps regulate you (for example, a favourite nature spot.) 

A lot of how we respond to stress is genetic. Are you a natural-born worrier? Try the CircleDNA premium test to find out how you’re more likely to deal with stress.

Erica Gordon
61 posts

About author
Erica majored in Psychology at UBC and has since founded The Babe Report and followed her passion for writing and journalism, with a focus on health and travel writing.
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