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How to calm an overactive nervous system

How to calm an overactive nervous system

We all feel stressed from time to time. It’s natural. In fact, a little bit of stress can turn us into the best version of ourselves. We can feel ‘superhuman’ when we’re moderately stressed; it can make us stronger, faster, and more agile.  However, problems can arise when stress becomes prolonged and persistent, transforming a once helpful response into a harmful force.
Perhaps most concerningly, chronic stress has the potential to disrupt the delicate status quo of your autonomic nervous system, which can lead to detrimental effects on both your mental and physical wellbeing.
Here, we explore practical steps to balance an overactive nervous system and support your overall wellbeing.

How does the autonomic nervous system work?

It can be helpful to think of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) as the ‘control centre’ of the body, overseeing involuntary processes like heart rate, digestion, and breathing (1). The ANS has two main branches: the sympathetic (‘fight-or-flight’) and parasympathetic (‘rest and digest’) systems.
When faced with immediate danger, the sympathetic system releases cortisol and adrenaline, stress hormones that prepare the body for action (2). Once the threat subsides, the parasympathetic system steps in to calm the body, facilitating recovery and energy conservation (3).
Together, sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work synergistically to maintain balance without us even thinking about it.

How does stress affect the nervous system?

As humans, we can handle some stress. But chronic and low-grade stress is a different story.
When the sympathetic nervous is in overdrive, there’s a repeated surge in cortisol and adrenaline. This sustained activation disrupts the usual balance of the autonomic nervous system and can lead to serious health concerns.

What are the symptoms of an overactive nervous system?

The body is pretty good at communicating when you’re overdoing it. If you notice the following symptoms, your nervous system is probably flagging and could do with extra support.  

  • Anxiety

  • Insomnia or disrupted sleep

  • Irritability

  • Muscle tension

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Digestive issues

  • Sweating

  • Fatigue

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Changes in appetite


Techniques to soothe an overactive nervous system

The key to rebalancing your nervous system lies in activating the vagus nerve, a critical component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your ‘rest and digest’ state. This long and meandering nerve plays a central role in promoting a sense of safety and calm.
Here are our go-to techniques when your nervous system is frazzled.  

Prioritise sleep

Without adequate rest, your nervous system will be fraying at the edges. During sleep, the body undergoes essential processes that support neural repair, memory consolidation, and emotional regulation (4). Sleep deprivation makes you more emotionally reactive and less adept at managing your emotions, creating the perfect environment for stress and anxiety.

There are plenty of ways to decompress before bed and ensure you get restful sleep every night.

  • Try a ‘brain dump’ before bed: write down all the frustrations, worries, and anything else that could keep you up in a notepad before bed.

  • Avoid commotion-causing activities in the evening: Scary films, discussions about finances, and work emails aren’t conducive to quality sleep, so avoid them before sleeping.

  • Take time to decompress: Set aside 30-60 minutes each night to fully relax before bed: practise meditation, do a few minutes of deep breathing, stretch, and disconnect from your devices.

  • Don’t lie in bed awake: If you’ve been lying in bed for 20 minutes and still can’t fall asleep, leave your room and do a simple activity, like reading. This way, you won’t associate your bed with a place of restlessness.

  • Try Valerian: Valerian root is a traditional herbal remedy used for the temporary relief of sleep disturbances and mild anxiety.

You can read more about improving your sleep on our dedicated Health Hub.  

Move your body

Exercise is one of the best nonmedical solutions we have for relieving stress and downregulating the nervous system (5). In the short term, movement enhances mood, increases optimism, and reduces muscle tension. In the long term, exercise teaches the brain to be more resilient to stress and sensitive to joy.
Any movement that improves oxygen flow from the heart and lungs to the muscles can rebalance the nervous system and reduce stress. Ultimately, just find something you enjoy and sticking to it – yoga, tennis, or swimming.

Get out in nature

As humans, we instinctively know that spending time in nature is good for us.  Connecting with the natural world not only diminishes stress but also promotes psychological relaxation, which can help to calm an overactive nervous system.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive impact of visual contact with flowers, green plants, and trees on the autonomic nervous system (6). Even exposure to stimuli depicting natural scenery, such as photos, virtual reality, and videos, can induce more relaxed body responses.
Try to spend as much time in nature as possible. Walk around your nearest green space, exercise outdoors, and take plenty of breaks outside. You can also bring nature inside your home by decorating your living space with plants and flowers.

Hug someone you trust (or yourself!)

Touch is another powerful tool for calming an overactive nervous system. A warm hug in a loving and secure context can work like magic when you’re feeling out of sorts.
Research suggests a simple hug can lower your blood pressure and heart rate, while also improving mood – changes reflected in the post-hug increase in the ‘cuddle hormone’, oxytocin (7).
Family therapist Virginia Satir once said: “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” While this may seem like a lot, it emphasises the importance of human touch. We all need it to feel safe.
And if you can’t hug someone else, stroke a pet or wrap your arms around yourself – both can be just as soothing. 

Sing, chant or hum

Your voice box is intricately connected to your vagus nerve, so engaging in activities like singing, chanting and humming can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, leaving you feeling peaceful and content.  
Chanting and humming are often involved in traditional yoga to help yogis further unwind and decompress. Studies suggest chanting ‘Om’, which consists of the three letters A, U, and M and encapsulates the whole process of articulation, can increase relaxation and calmness (8).
You don’t need to be able to ‘hold a note’ to enjoy these benefits: sing in the car, hum in the shower, or incorporate chanting into mind-body practices.

Laugh more

Laughter is indeed one of the best forms of medicine. As with singing, chanting, and humming, laughter stimulates the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic response and promoting a sense of wellbeing (9).
Laughter also increases oxygen intake, enhancing both energy and mood, and triggering the release of feel-good endorphins.
Try to find more opportunities to laugh: watch a comedy, chat with your funniest friend, or try laughing yoga (yes, that practice does exist). And we’re talking about spontaneous, roaring, uncontrollable laughter (not the fake kind used for social lubricant!).

Consider cold therapy 

There’s growing evidence that cold therapy may improve mental wellbeing, reduce stress, and calm the nervous system (10).
The shock of cold water initially triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the ‘fight or flight’ response. At the same time, the body releases beta-endorphins for pain relief, compounds that make you feel euphoric and blissful.
Beyond the immediate post-cold ‘high’, regular exposure to cold water is thought to build tolerance to stress over time, which may help balance the nervous system (11).
For those looking to explore cold therapy, consider having a brief icy blast at the end of your daily shower routine. Start with 10 seconds, and slowly work your way up. Spending between 2 and 5 minutes in cold water may offer significant benefits for your nervous system.
Of course, you don’t need to stop with cold showers. Wild swimming is another popular way to enjoy cold therapy.

Cry it out

Crying is perhaps the most intuitive way to balance an overactive nervous system. This physical expression of emotion triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps reduce stress and pain.
Studies suggest that the action of crying releases natural pain relief, which has a beneficial effect for both emotional and physical discomfort (12). It also triggers oxytocin production, leading to post-crying mood improvements.
In Japan, people enthusiastically embrace the healing powers of tears. Many cities have ‘crying clubs’, where people come together to vent their emotions and cry without judgement (13).
Anyone who’s ever cried before (meaning all of us) is familiar with the relief experienced afterwards. Listen to your body. If you need to cry, do so. There’s no need to fight back the tears.

Try tapping

The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as tapping, has gained traction in recent years as a practice to help reduce stress and anxiety (14).
EFT works similarly to acupuncture but without the use of needles. Tapping on specific acupressure points is believed to stimulate the body's energy pathways called meridians. According to traditional Chinese medicine, this helps to balance the flow of energy, or ‘qi’, throughout the body, potentially regulating the nervous system and promoting a sense of calm.
EFT is great as a self-help technique when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Using your fingers with moderate pressure, try tapping the heel of your hand, the area under your eye, just below your nose, under your lips, your collarbone, your underarm, and the top of your head seven to nine times.

Think about your nutrition

Besides following a balanced, whole-food diet, ensuring a plentiful intake of the following nutrients may help balance your nervous system. These nutrients are available as stand-alone products, or for convenience, you may wish to consider taking a multivitamin.

Omega 3

The long-chain omega 3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are vital for your brain, the commander-in-chief of the nervous system. DHA, in particular, plays a vital role in normal brain function.* Find it: Oily fish or plant-based microalgae.
 *A beneficial effect is obtained with a daily intake of 250mg of DHA?  


A critical trace mineral needed in small quantities, iodine contributes to normal nervous system function. Find it: Cheese.  


Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in over 300 biochemical processes and contributes to the normal functioning of the nervous system. Find it: Pumpkin seeds.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C also plays an important role in supporting nervous system function. Find it: Kiwi fruit.

Vitamin D3

Although technically a vitamin, vitamin D3 operates like a hormone in the body. Some experts believe low levels may affect the nervous system (15). Find it: Egg yolks.  

Adaptogenic herbs

Nutritionists often recommend adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandhaSiberian Ginseng, and Korean Ginseng to support wellbeing and balance the nervous system (16).


PEA is an endocannabinoid-like compound in almost every cell, tissue, and fluid. Naturally produced when cells are damaged or threatened, PEA is a well-researched alternative to CBD. It’s a popular choice to support nervous system function.


The amino acid found in green and black teas, theanine, is a great addition for those looking to support mental performance and nervous system function.


The active compound in turmeric, curcumin, has been revered for generations, with many people taking it to support their health and wellbeing (17).

B vitamins

The family of B vitamins are involved in many different biochemical processes. In particular, vitamins B1, B3 (niacin), B6B7 (biotin), and B12 contribute to the normal functioning of the nervous system. Find them: Dark green leafy vegetables.
For additional support, you may wish to try the newest addition to our B-complexes, Neuro-B designed with healthy nerves in mind. The comprehensive formula contains relevant amounts of vitamin B1 for the nervous system, vitamin B6 (as PSP) for normal red blood cell formation, and B12 for normal neurological and psychological formation.

Find out more

The modern world doesn’t always make it easy to balance the nervous system. But we hope leaning on these techniques can help you feel more grounded and less frazzled amidst the chaos.
If you found this article on balancing an overactive nervous system useful, you can find similar guidance at Nutrition Buzz. Alternatively, please get in touch with our team of expert Nutrition Advisors, who are on hand to provide free, confidential advice.


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  11. ., 'Cross-adaptation': habituation to short repeated cold-water immersions affects the response to acute hypoxia in humans. J Physiol. ;588(Pt 18):3605-13.

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Our Author - Olivia Salter


Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.

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