We all know that sinking feeling, a moment of panic. Maybe you accidentally butt-dialed your ex (or boss) or missed an important meeting. Or maybe it’s more serious, like when you have to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. Your heart is pumping fast, and even though the moment is over, it takes a few minutes—or even hours—before you truly calm down.
When this happens, your body goes through a fight-flight-freeze response, which causes a release of hormones, including adrenaline. This response is meant for survival. Your heart rate rises to pump more oxygen into your body, your eyes dilate so you can see better, and your hearing becomes sharper. Humans developed this ancestral response so that when we face danger, we have a greater chance of surviving by preparing our bodies to stay in place (freeze), run away (flight), or face the conflict head-on (fight).
For most of us, modern life is a lot more cushy than it was for our ancestors. Still, certain experiences can trigger this emergency response, even when we aren’t truly in danger. From constant engagement online to stress from work, our nervous system can become overwhelmed and need a break. When that happens, you may feel the urge to “reset” it.
What’s The Nervous System? Does It Need Resetting?
Your nervous system acts like the command center for the body, and it guides most of our daily activity, including:
- Basic activities like breathing and seeing.
- Complex processes, like thinking, reading, and feeling emotions.
- Detecting threats—whether real or imaginary—and triggering a fight-flight-freeze response.
If you have a pet, you may have noticed them shaking their bodies after an exciting or frightening experience. That’s them literally shaking off their stress VCA Animal Hospitals “Signs Your Dog Is Stressed and How to Relieve It” View Source .
Regulating the nervous system is a big part of somatic therapy—a holistic approach to therapeutic healing work that aims to heal a person with mental and physical exercises. While you can’t truly “reset” your nervous system, you can take steps to restore it with relaxation techniques and other practices that may help restore balance.
How Do I Know If My Nervous System Needs A Break?
You don’t always need to work with a somatic therapist to restore your nervous system—there are plenty of exercises you can do on your own. But first, you’ll have to learn how to identify when your nervous system is out of balance.
There are four nervous system threats, according to psychologist and author Dr. Nicole LePera
- Fight: When you’re feeling angry or terrified.
- Flight: When you’re feeling anxious and are overthinking things.
- Freeze: When you shut down or dissociate.
- Fawn: When you feel overwhelmed and engage in co-dependent patterns.
Each of these feelings can shake up your nervous system. But with the right exercises you may be able to restore equilibrium.
How To Restore Balance To Your Nervous System
While you may not be able to control your nervous system, there are measures you can take to help calm yourself down and build resilience when facing stressful situations.
1. Take a Breath
Breathwork can be a surprisingly effective and simple way to calm your nerves. Plus, you can do it anywhere, especially with a breathwork app. (We like Breathwrk.)When we take a slow, deep breaths, we signal to our parasympathetic nervous system (rather than the sympathetic system American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education “Physiology of the Autonomic Nervous System” View Source , which controls fight-or-flight responses) to calm down and restore our emotional and mental state Physiology & Behavior “A sigh following sustained attention and mental stress: effects on respiratory variability” View Source . It can also help let go of stress and anxiety.
Just taking a few minutes to breathe in and out slowly can help. But you can take things a step further and practice pranayama, or yoga breathing. This kind of breathwork takes many forms and can be done in conjunction with yoga poses. One way to try it is by setting yourself up in a seated, comfortable position, and making sure you’re breathing from your abdomen. If you’re new to breathwork, try the Ujjayi Pranayama U.S. National Library of Medicine “Yoga Poses and Breath Control Cardiovascular Changes in Hypertensive Post-Menopause Women (YOGINI)” View Source (victorious breath) exercise. With your mouth closed, breathe in and out through your nose, constricting your throat slightly. You should feel a slight tickle along the back of your throat, and it should sound almost like the waves of an ocean.
2. Get Cold
Cold exposure may soothe your vagus nerve, the main nerve of your parasympathetic nervous system, and help restore balance. A 2008 study Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine “Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation” View Source showed that when your body adjusts to cold temperatures, your fight-flight-freeze response decreases, and your rest-and-digest system increases.
To practice this at home, take a quick shower. If that sounds like too much, try first splashing your face with cold water or submerging it in an ice bath for a few seconds.
3. Sweat It Out
If cold isn’t your thing, you can try heat instead. There’s something so relaxing about a long, hot bath—and for good reason. Being submerged in a warm bath or a hot sauna may actually lower inflammation Journal of Applied Physiology “Acute and chronic effects of hot water immersion on inflammation and metabolism in sedentary, overweight adults” View Source . Additionally, a 2018 study found that heating pads helped reduce anxiety Neurourology Urodynamics “The effects of a heating pad on anxiety, pain, and distress during urodynamic study in the female patients with stress urinary incontinence” View Source in female patients with stress urinary incontinence.
Next time you need to find balance and relaxation after a stressful event, run yourself a warm bath or treat yourself to a long, hot shower. If you don’t want to bathe, grab a heating pad and apply it to areas that may feel tense, like your shoulders or neck.
4. Shake It Off
Yep, we’re telling you to shake, shake, shake it off. It turns out that shaking out your body—or different parts of it—may help release tension and trauma. When we shake our body, we’re calming our nervous system to a neutral state by burning adrenaline and releasing muscular tension.
It’s no wonder “shake it off” is a long-standing cultural idiom we tell each other when things get tough. Before a public speaking event or an interview, try shaking out your arms or bouncing around a bit to release your nerves. Or take a quick dance break during a stressful day at work. The more you flail your arms, the better! If you have a little more time at home, try this trauma release exercise:
5. Weigh It Down
There isn’t quite enough research to draw conclusive evidence on weighted blankets, but many people use them based on the idea of deep pressure stimulation Cleveland Clinic “Do Weighted Blankets Work?” View Source . Described as a “giant hug,” a weighted blanket applies a light, even pressure over the entire body, which can promote a feeling of relaxation and calm. In fact, one study Occupational Therapy in Mental Health “Evaluating the Safety and Effectiveness of the Weighted Blanket With Adults During an Inpatient Mental Health Hospitalization” View Source tested weighted blankets on people hospitalized for a mental health crisis and found that over half of those who used them reported lower anxiety.
To decide what weighted blanket to use, opt for something that’s about 10% of your body weight. Usually, that will be somewhere between 10–20 pounds.
6. Cuddle Up
Cuddling with your loved ones or your cat or dog doesn’t just help you bond—it also releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin Harvard Health “Oxytocin: The love hormone” View Source . According to a study Frontiers in Psychology “Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels in Dog Owners and Their Dogs Are Associated with Behavioral Patterns: An Exploratory Study” View Source published in 2017, dog owners not only enjoyed this oxytocin boost but also benefited from a decrease in cortisol, the primary stress hormone in your body.
If you have a pet and start feeling stressed or get that fight-or-flight feeling, cuddle up with them. Not only will you feel better, you’ll also have a chance to bond! (In lieu of a pet, this should also work with humans, too.)
7. Switch Off
We all know reduced screen time can help with your sleep schedule. But taking a break from the fast-paced and stressful work that tends to live on screens is also important to regulate your nervous system. Constant engagement online can lead to stress on the body McLean Hospital “The Social Dilemma: Social Media and Your Mental Health” View Source and contribute to depression International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction “Mental Health Concerns in The Digital Age” View Source and anxiety.
Take a Sunday reset and set your phone to “Do Not Disturb” mode, then dive into a new hobby or pastime. You could use this time to enjoy nature by gardening or taking a walk, practicing meditation, or picking up a craft like needlepoint or crochet. Or, you can even use this time to connect with a friend or family member in person. Socializing not only pulls you away from the stress of constant online engagement, but it may actually lower your stress levels.
Your fight-flight-freeze response is there to protect you when your body senses danger. While this response was essential to our evolution as a human species, our modern culture can often trigger our nervous system to go into overdrive. Taking measures to help restore your nervous system can help you relax during a stressful week or after an intense experience. Whether it’s a trip to the sauna or finding the perfect weighted blanket, Ness is there to help you find the best deal!
- “Fight, Flight, Freeze: What This Response Means,” Healthline (February 2020).
- “What Is Somatic Therapy?” Very Well Mind (July 2021).
- “How the Fight-or-Flight Response Works,” Very Well Mind (August 2019).
- “Nervous System Pocket Guide,” Dr. Nicole LePera (March 2022).
- “Signs Your Dog is Stressed and How to Relieve It,” VCA Animal Hospitals.
- “A sigh following sustained attention and mental stress: effects on respiratory variability,” National Library of Medicine (August 2012).
- “Yoga Poses and Breath Control Cardiovascular Changes in Hypertensive Post-Menopause Women (YOGINI),” U.S. National Library of Medicine (July 2019).
- “Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation,” National Library of Medicine (September 2008).
- “Acute and chronic effects of hot water immersion on inflammation and metabolism in sedentary, overweight adults,” Journal of Applied Physiology (December 2018).
- “The effects of a heating pad on anxiety, pain, and distress during urodynamic study in the female patients with stress urinary incontinence,” National Library of Medicine (March 2018).
- “Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises,” TRE.
- “Do Weighted Blankets Work?” Cleveland Clinic (January 2021).
- “Evaluating the Safety and Effectiveness of the Weighted Blanket With Adults During an Inpatient Mental Health Hospitalization,” Occupational Therapy in Mental Health (September 2015).
- “Oxytocin: Facts about the ‘cuddle hormone’,” Live Science (October 2021).
- “Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels in Dog Owners and Their Dogs Are Associated with Behavioral Patterns: An Exploratory Study,” National Library of Medicine (October 2017).
- “The Social Dilemma: Social Media and Your Mental Health,” McLean Harvard Medical School Affiliate (January 2022).
- “Mental Health Concerns in the Digital Age,” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction (June 2016).
- “What are the health benefits of being social?” Medical News Today (February 2018).
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