The Health Risks of a Dysregulated Nervous System
From thrill-seeking to fibromyalgia, the effects can be dangerous to our health.
Posted November 5, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Long after a traumatic event has passed, a person’s nervous system can be reactivated whenever they perceive danger.
- A dysregulated nervous system can manifest as appearing shut down, lethargic, or “out of it” as part of the "freeze" or "fawn" trauma responses.
- There is a longstanding body of research that correlates higher ACEs scores with an increased risk of a dysregulated nervous system.
- Difficulty relaxing and hypervigilance are correlated with a dysregulated nervous system and "fight" or "flight" trauma responses.
Long after a traumatic event has passed, a person’s nervous system can be reactivated whenever they perceive danger, whether or not danger is present. This feeling of heightened arousal is like being stuck in the “go” or “on” position while at the same time trying to minimize feelings of internal chaos.
Nervous system dysregulation can be difficult to explain and equally difficult to experience. These feelings can trigger deep shame, leading to a cycle that is reinforced by the same feelings of dread that the person is trying to escape. Because of these intense and unpleasant emotional and physical experiences, some compare a dysregulated nervous system to simultaneously having one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake while trying to function.
In the words of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk:
“After trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives.”
Causes of a Dysregulated Nervous System
One of the biggest predictors of a severely dysregulated nervous system is childhood trauma, specifically chronic and ongoing childhood trauma. For example, being raised by abusive, narcissistic caregivers or growing up in poverty can affect a child globally. They may experience autonomic dysfunction, sleep disturbances, and emotional dysregulation. Equally common are unexplained memory problems, dizziness or chronic headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and muscle pain.
Many children develop a maladaptive stress response (nervous system dysregulation) from witnessing domestic violence, being abused or neglected, being bullied, experiencing medical trauma, or having a parent or caregiver who struggles with substance abuse.
Children raised in these conditions can become triggered into a chronic sympathetic nervous system state. These kids may walk around with their fists clenched and may be filled with angry energy and act out. They may walk on eggshells in their home, may have a difficult time relaxing, and their breathing may be shallow and winded. Children who experience this type of dysregulation can become adults who are stuck in a “fight” or “flight” trauma response.
On the flip side, a dysregulated nervous system can manifest as appearing shut down, lethargic, or “out of it.” Many kids who experience a dysregulated nervous system may be stuck in a “freeze” or “fawn” trauma response where they experience emotional numbness, dissociation, or depression. They may become “people-pleasers” as adults, having been conditioned to seek out external validation while placing other people’s needs before their own. Or, they may enlist in “toxic positivity” and only “look on the bright side,” to the point where they become out of touch with their own vulnerable emotions and the emotions of others.
Other common effects of nervous system dysregulation may include:
1. Thrill-seeking behaviors.
Kids who grow up in chaos may be attracted to it in their adult lives. Many who have experienced significant nervous system dysregulation in childhood may not know “how” to feel unless they are engaging in intense experiences that constantly push their physical, emotional, or mental faculties to their limits. Many who find themselves stuck in a “flight” trauma response commonly report feeling stuck in their head where thrill-seeking can offer a momentary respite from this pattern.
On one end of the spectrum, some may get a rush from the effects of workaholism, in which working an excessive amount of hours each week taps into their need for a thrill. Others may be on the other end of the spectrum where dangerous hobbies or patterns of engaging in toxic relationships become their “go-to” thrill.
2. Auto-immune disorders and diseases.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are negative experiences that can happen to a child within the first 18 years of their lives. For example, adverse conditions can include poverty, abuse, neglect, abandonment, a parent or caregiver with mental illness, or witnessing domestic violence.
There is a longstanding body of research that correlates higher ACEs scores with an increased risk of a dysregulated nervous system, which can predispose a person to disorders or diseases such as asthma, depression, fibromyalgia, headaches, allergies, diabetes, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer. Research suggests that extreme emotional trauma and chronic emotional stress can negatively impact the nervous system and lower a person’s natural resiliency, leaving them vulnerable to physical and mental problems.
Trauma Essential Reads
Hypervigilance is a common outcome of nervous system dysregulation. With hypervigilance, a person is constantly on edge, may always anticipate the worst, and can be easily triggered into an angry, or violent state. Many who have experienced significant trauma in childhood become adults who unconsciously find themselves in relationships (with either friends or romantic partners) that re-trigger their trauma and perpetuate a sense of nervous system dysregulation and hypervigilance.
Healing From a Dysregulated Nervous System
Healing requires us to become mindful of our lifestyle patterns and emotional stressors (“triggers”). I typically ask my clients to begin tracking their habits and emotional triggers while I create a behavior plan that incorporates mindfulness, meditation, somatic experiences, psycho-education, and several other key modifications to their lifestyle to support their healing.
If you are experiencing symptoms of trauma, please reach out to a trauma-informed clinician. To find one near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Elbers, J., & Batista, B. (2018). Nervous system dysregulation and its association with traumatic events. Pediatrics, 141(1), doi.org/10.1542/peds.141.1MA4.305
van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.
Walker, P. (2014). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Azure Coyote: Lafayette.