What does “regulating the nervous system” actually mean?

Dr Martina Melzer, published: 11/30/23


Important information in advance:


  • In the case of so-called mind-body syndromes, special examinations often reveal abnormalities, but there is usually no damage to organs or tissue.


  • Always have any new symptoms checked thoroughly by a doctor. It can be caused by mind-body syndrome, but also another illness, or it can be a combination of both.


If you search for “nervous system regulation” on Instagram, you will find over 300,000 posts. If you enter “regulating the nervous system” you get over 16,000 posts. Somehow everyone says to regulate your nervous system, right? But what does that actually mean?

As I understand it, regulating the nervous system is about the following: Our autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. According to the polyvagal theory, the parasympathetic nervous system, also called the vagus nerve, consists of two parts, the ventral and the dorsal vagus.

The essential function of the autonomic nervous system is to adapt our entire organism to the current situation. If we feel safe and active, the sympathetic nervous system is in a healthy mode and the ventral vagus is switched on. If we feel safe and at rest, the ventral and dorsal vagus are on.

If we perceive there to be danger, the sympathetic nervous system goes into fight or flight mode, which can be important for survival in the short term, but is unhealthy in the long term. If fighting or fleeing is not possible, the dorsal vagus activates and puts us into a kind of protective mode. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are no longer in a healthy balance, but have become out of balance. The whole organism is adapted to “survival”.

Once the danger has passed, both parts calm down and return to a healthy balance. Therefore one has to feel safe enough Depending on whether we are active or resting, the sympathetic nervous system or the vagus is more active. A healthy autonomic nervous system constantly oscillates flexibly between these different states - depending on the situation.

out of balance

If the autonomic nervous system is out of balance, either the sympathetic nervous system is stuck in fight and flight mode or the dorsal vagus is stuck in freeze or shutdown mode. Sometimes both are switched on at the same time, which manifests itself as “tired but wired”.

In this context, what I mean by “regulating the nervous system” is that the autonomic nervous system is so flexible that it constantly adapts to the current situation. If it has to go into survival mode for a short time, it will then return to its healthy equilibrium as quickly as possible – if this feels safe enough. It regulates itself, many times a day.

If it is stuck in survival mode, as is the case with mind-body syndromes, it can no longer regulate itself properly, can no longer settle down. This is where the many different techniques that so many of us use to help come into play. To help the nervous system regulate itself again.


There are ways of self-regulation - you can bring yourself back into balance by creating a feeling of security. And there are ways of co-regulation - the proximity of a person, living being, thing or nature radiates security. This is transmitted to yourself, which brings the nervous system back into balance.

From my point of view, all the techniques are not just about relaxing and resting, but also about really feeling which part of the nervous system is stuck in survival mode or whether it is even both. And then using appropriate methods to help the nervous system settle down again. Relaxation can help, but so can activation or simply stabilization.

The word “regulate” is also often found when referring to emotions. You should learn to regulate your emotions. As I understand it, emotions are part of the reactions of the autonomic nervous system and are therefore a wonderful indicator of what state the nervous system is currently in. The trap when it comes to “regulating emotions” is that you primarily want to “regulate” unpleasant emotions such as fear, anger and sadness and thereby suppress these emotions. But this creates new stress for the nervous system. The art is therefore: Perceiving, feeling, allowing, finding a way to regulate, but not pushing it away. And: Everything that regulates the nervous system also regulates emotions - and vice versa!

Translated with the help of a translator program


Important: The statements in this text are the result of my research from scientific studies, professional articles, books, courses, education and training as well as my own recovery process. I have done the best possible research, but nevertheless make no claim to accuracy. In science, something is considered a hypothesis until it is clearly proven (or disproven). That is then evidence, a fact. The statements in this text are a combination of hypotheses and facts.

Also, the content on this page is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for talking to your doctor or other therapist. Please talk to your doctor or therapist before making any decisions about your physical or mental health. Every way into a mind-body syndrome is something individual, and every way out.