How To Reduce Anxiety and Depression By Fixing Nervous System Dysregulation

Discover a powerful, new (and somewhat unpopular) way to deal with anxiety and depression - without meditation, yoga, gratitude lists, pharmaceuticals and $49 Moleskine journals.

Discover a powerful, new (and somewhat unpopular) way to deal with anxiety and depression - without meditation, yoga, gratitude lists, pharmaceuticals and $49 Moleskine journals.

Episode Summary

Anxiety and nervous system dysregulation is like living on pins and needles all the time. Or that sharp pain in your chest when getting bad news, but all the time. As Steven Wright said: “You know when you’re sitting on a chair and you lean back so you’re just on two legs and you lean too far so you almost fall over but at the last second you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time…”

Or, on the other hand, maybe it’s depression. The opposite – not wanting to do anything, not wanting to be anything, or even to exist at all. An overwhelming desire to stop existing. Or simply no motivation for anything – lethargy and apathy, listlessness. Is this it!?

Most of us have had to deal with anxiety, depression or trauma in our lifetimes, but it doesn’t have to be a lifelong battle. In fact, there may actually be an overlooked scientific way to tackle anxiety and depression: fixing your dysregulated nervous system.

Today, we’ll dive into the importance of understanding how your body responds physiologically when experiencing anxiety or depression, as well as explore methods on how to take control of these states through proactive means that are different from the traditional yoga, meditation and journaling tools.

According to John Wood, the founder of Rageheart, when it comes to regulating the autonomic nervous system and fixing nervous system dysregulation, tools like meditation, yoga, gratitude lists and journaling are outdated and incomplete.

But before we get to that, let’s understand the role that the autonomic nervous system plays in our daily lives.

What is the Autonomic Nervous System (“ANS”)?

Autonomic Nervous System

Source: GeeksforGeeks

The autonomic nervous system is part of the peripheral nervous system that regulates involuntary physiological processes. These processes include the heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion and sexual arousal.

There are 3 distinct divisions within the autonomic nervous system:

  • Sympathetic
  • Parasympathetic
  • Enteric

For the purposes of this article on reducing anxiety and depression, we will focus on the first 2 divisions.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the engine of the “fight or flight” response. When it activates, it initiates a series of physiological changes that prepare the organism to either run away from a threat or attack it (the “fight or flight” response) in order to return to safety. Blood pressure and heart rate increase, breathing increases, energy increases and digestion slows or stops, muscles tense in preparation for action and much more.

On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) promotes the “rest and digest” processes: heart rate and blood pressure lower, digestion restarts, we feel like being social, we can fall (and stay) asleep and more. 

At the extreme end of the parasympathetic nervous system is the freeze response. That looks and feels like, well, being frozen. In its most extreme form, you can’t move. You’re paralyzed, shut down, disconnected, numb and disassociated. It usually activates right before death, such as when a cheetah catches a gazelle and the gazelle “freezes” before being eaten. Its nervous system is in a sense “preparing to die”. In milder forms, the freeze response may simply feel like a lack of energy, motivation or interest in life.


How The Autonomic Nervous System Increases or Decreases Anxiety or Depression


Think about how anxiety or a panic attack feels to you—heart racing, breathing fast, inability to relax or sit still, and perhaps some digestion issues or problems sleeping—does that sound familiar?

Now re-read the description of the sympathetic nervous system in the last section: heart rate increases, breathing increases, digestion slows, and more.

In other words, we can think of anxiety as a malfunctioning of the sympathetic nervous system. Put simply, we’re stuck in sympathetic activation and can’t come down. We’re stuck in ON mode. Stuck in “fight or flight”, as if there’s a threat nearby… even if no threats are actually present. Our foot is stuck on the gas pedal.

Next, consider how depression feels: low energy, low motivation, feeling stuck, numb, disconnected, and perhaps even wanting to die. Now look up at the last section on the freeze response: paralyzed, shut down, disconnected, and preparing to die.

In other words, just as anxiety is a sign that we are stuck in sympathetic “fight or flight” activation, depression is a sign that we are stuck in the extreme end of the parasympathetic nervous system; our car’s brakes are jammed.

The technical terms for these situations are “nervous system dysregulation” and “autonomic dysfunction” because the autonomic nervous system is out of balance. It is “dysregulated”, or disorganized.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that if we can get the nervous system unstuck, we’ll stop feeling so anxious and depressed. Thankfully, there are some fantastic tools for fixing nervous system dysregulation.

But Are Meditation, Yoga, Gratitude Lists and Journaling the Solution?

First, let’s talk about some of the more common tools people use to manage anxiety and depression:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Gratitude lists
  • Journaling
  • Breathwork

According to John Wood, these tools are actually not specifically designed to work with the autonomic nervous system and the fight-or-flight response (the root of anxiety and depression).

For example, meditation and yoga were originally intended for spiritual awakening – not for managing anxiety and depression. That means they sometimes offer counterproductive advice when it comes to anxiety and depression.

For example, people who meditate may think that all they need to do when they’re stressed or feeling anxious is to either breathe into and through it or simply feel it (ie. be with it). To be fair, sometimes that’s exactly what the nervous system needs… but other times, it’s the opposite, according to Wood. Sometimes, the best thing we can do for stress and anxiety is to let our breath run free, even if it means allowing its speed to increase rather than slowing it down. Rather than simply “feeling it” as meditation would suggest, sometimes a given feeling needs to be expressed or converted into an action (such as turning fear into running or anger into growling).

According to Wood, this explains why so many people who meditate, journal and make lists of what they’re grateful for, continue to struggle with deep-set issues that just won’t go away. They’re not actually dealing with the root of the problem: a dysregulated nervous system and “fight or flight” response.

“I meditated almost daily for more than 10 years straight and while it helped me stay calm, it didn’t resolve deeper issues that I’d had my whole life”, says Wood. “Gratitude lists, journaling, breathwork, life-coaching, hell.. even talk therapy. All of it helped and yet none of it got to the really deep stuff no matter how much I dug.”

Everything changed when Wood discovered the world of reversing nervous system dysregulation

“In less than 2 weeks, I felt like I’d made more progress than in the previous 10 years meditating. It was unreal.”

The trick to reversing anxiety, depression and nervous system dysregulation, according to Wood, is getting out of the head and into the body. Out of thinking and into feeling.

As we discussed earlier, when most people feel stressed or triggered, what they’re actually feeling is the sympathetic side of the nervous system activating. They’ve moved into some amount of fight-or-flight energy. That means that the solution is not to meditate or think about what you’re grateful for… but to deactivate the fight-or-flight response.

How do you do that?

One simple technique (there are many) is to look around the room or space that you’re in and see if it’s safe where you are. Are there any tigers? Any screaming people? Any hurricanes about to bowl you over? If not, then you’re probably safe (and therefore, there’s nothing to attack or run away from).

It’s not merely a mental thing. That’s why attempting to reduce anxiety and depression by resolving nervous system dysregulation is not enough by simply thinking or saying “I am safe.” You must provide your nervous system with the necessary sensory data (i.e., colors and sounds) that conveys safety.

And if it is indeed safe?

Your nervous system relaxes out of sympathetic activation — out of fight-or-flight (attack or run away) mode — and returns to parasympathetic rest-and-digest mode. Muscles relax, adrenaline decreases, digestion improves, and much more. This is the key to reversing nervous system dysregulation.

This is also what Wood means when he says “reverse anxiety and depression by unleashing the beast inside you”:

Wood says, “If you watch animals carefully, you’ll notice they are constantly orienting to the environment, scanning to see if it is safe. They don’t journal about it; they don’t meditate on it; they don’t make lists of what they are grateful for. They literally look around the room (or jungle) to see if it is safe. If it is safe, they relax, sleep, eat and do whatever they want to do. If it is not safe, their body tenses, their eyes narrow and they prepare either to run away or attack.”

Orienting oneself to the safety of the environment is just one technique for reversing anxiety and depression through the nervous system. Other techniques include using specific movements of the head and neck to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, making sounds to relax and tone the vagus nerve, as well as things like growling and snarling as ways to work with, express, and release aggression energy – which is the fuel of the fight response.

John Wood teaches these techniques to people via his daily email newsletter at Rageheart here. If you want to reduce anxiety and depression by reversing nervous system dysregulation and unleashing the beast inside you – without tools like meditation, $49 Moleskine journals and gratitude lists – sign up for Wood’s daily email newsletter here:

How To Reduce Anxiety and Depression By Unleashing the Beast

Or listen to his podcast here.

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