What is nervous system dysregulation?

Mar 11, 2024
woman looking at computer stressed out

As women over 35, the juggling act of managing career, family, and personal well-being can often feel overwhelming. Stress and burnout become familiar companions, impacting not just our mental health but also our physical well-being. At the core of this struggle lies a complex interplay of factors, including nervous system dysregulation. In this guide, we'll delve into what nervous system dysregulation is, how it manifests, and most importantly, strategies to navigate and mitigate its effects.

What is Nervous System Dysregulation?

The nervous system serves as the body's communication network, coordinating everything from simple reflexes to complex thoughts and emotions. Nervous system dysregulation refers to an imbalance or disruption in the functioning of this intricate system. It is an imbalance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our autonomic nervous system. This imbalance can manifest in various ways, including:

  • heightened stress responses
  • difficulty regulating emotions
  • disturbances in sleep patterns
  • migraines
  • anxiety
  • chronic pain
  • GI distress

Research conducted by Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a leading neuroendocrinologist, highlights the profound impact of chronic stress on the nervous system. Prolonged exposure to stressors can dysregulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a key component of the body's stress response system, leading to maladaptive physiological and psychological responses. Want a more in-depth look at the HPA axis? Click HERE

Risk Factors for Nervous System Dysregulation

 There are certain risk factors for developing a dysregulated nervous system. These risk factors go back to the concept of allostatic load. You can read more about it HERE. I am also going to be writing a more in-depth post about allostatic load soon, so make sure to sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss it! Click HERE to get signed up and get a free copy of my Stress Busting Guide! 

Risk factors for developing a dysregulated nervous system include:

  • chronic stress
  • trauma
  • metabolic disease (hypertension, insulin resistance, obesity)
  • hormonal imbalances 
  • gut issues 

Manifestations of Nervous System Dysregulation:

  1. Heightened Stress Response: Women experiencing nervous system dysregulation often find themselves in a constant state of heightened arousal. This can manifest as increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and muscle tension, even in non-threatening situations. It can also show up as an increased startle response. 

  2. Emotional Dysregulation: Fluctuations in mood, irritability, and difficulty managing emotions are common symptoms of nervous system dysregulation. Research published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research suggests that alterations in neurotransmitter levels, such as serotonin and dopamine, may contribute to these emotional disturbances. Additionally, chronic activation of the HPA axis can lead to memory issues often associated with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. 

    1. It's also important to note that the emotional dysregulation seen may be related to cortisol's interplay with other hormones and decreased estrogen, testosterone or progesterone as well as increased resistance to insulin. Want more information about cortisol and other hormones? Click HERE.
  3. Sleep Disturbances: The relationship between stress and sleep is bidirectional, with each influencing the other. Nervous system dysregulation can disrupt the natural sleep-wake cycle, leading to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restorative sleep. I take a more in-depth look at stress and sleep in THIS post.

  4. Chronic Pain: HPA axis changes have been noted in several disease states including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and other conditions associated with chronic pain. 
  5. Metabolic Syndrome: Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. Licht, de Geus, and Penninx (2013) showed increased sympathetic activity (chronic stress) predicted an increase in metabolic abnormalities over a 2 year period. 
  6. Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IBS): Studies have shown that patients with IBS have a reduction in biomarkers associated with autonomic function. Dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system appears to be involved in the pathophysiology of functional bowel disorders. 

Strategies for Navigating Nervous System Dysregulation:

  1. Stress Management Techniques: Incorporating stress-reducing practices such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation can help regulate the stress response and promote a sense of calm.

  2. Prioritize Self-Care: Carving out time for self-care activities that nourish the mind, body, and soul is essential for managing nervous system dysregulation. This may include engaging in hobbies, spending time in nature, or seeking support from loved ones.

  3. Establish Healthy Boundaries: Learning to say no and setting boundaries around time, energy, and commitments can prevent overwhelm and mitigate the impact of stressors on the nervous system.

  4. Seek Professional Support: If symptoms persist or significantly impact daily functioning, seeking support from a qualified mental health professional is crucial. Therapy modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and somatic experiencing can help address underlying issues contributing to nervous system dysregulation.


Navigating the challenges of stress and burnout can feel like an uphill battle, especially for women over 35 juggling multiple responsibilities. Understanding the role of nervous system dysregulation in exacerbating these struggles is the first step towards reclaiming balance and well-being. By implementing stress management techniques, prioritizing self-care, establishing healthy boundaries, and seeking professional support when needed, you can cultivate resilience and thrive amidst life's pressures. Remember, you're not alone, and support is available every step of the way.

 As always, I'd love to hear from you! If you've got questions or comments, don't hesitate to shoot me an email or get in touch on social. 

If you know someone who could benefit from this information, I'd love for you to forward it on ❤


  1. Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. Holt Paperbacks.
  2. Wingenfeld, K., Wolf, O. T., & HPA axis alterations in mental disorders: Impact on memory and its relevance for therapeutic interventions. (2011). Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 71(6), 463-467.
  3. Bomholt SF, Harbuz MS, Blackburn-Munro G, Blackburn-Munro RE. Involvement and role of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) stress axis in animal models of chronic pain and inflammation. Stress. 2004 Mar;7(1):1-14. doi: 10.1080/10253890310001650268. PMID: 15204028.
  4. Carmilla M. M. Licht, Eco J. C. de Geus, Brenda W. J. H. Penninx, Dysregulation of the Autonomic Nervous System Predicts the Development of the Metabolic Syndrome, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 98, Issue 6, 1 June 2013, Pages 2484–2493, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2012-3104
  5. Slavioli, B., Pellegatta, G., Malacarne, M., Pace, F., Malesci, A., Pagani, M., & Lucini, D. Autonomic nervous system dysregulation in irritable bowel syndrome, Neurogastroenterology & Motility, Volume 27, Issue 3, January 2015, Pages 423-430. https://doi.org/10.1111/nmo.12512

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