We all know that dating can give us butterflies, make our hearts beat faster, and make our palms feel sweaty. But those are only some of the effects our nervous system can have on us when we’re getting into new relationships.
Sometimes our nervous system can get in the way of our enthusiasm, and make us feel ‘dysregulated’ – in other words, over anxious, aggressive or stressed.
Studies suggest that when we experience emotional dysregulation, there is a reduction in the brain’s ability to employ the emotional brakes, causing us to remain in a prolonged ‘fight or flight’ response. This is not ideal when we’e in the first flushes of love, and hoping to make a solid first impression.
Understanding our nervous system can help us gain more insight into why we sometimes feel this kind of compulsive response, and how to regulate it. Learning to manage our more extreme emotions can be the difference between a successful or not so successful romantic pairing.
Our nervous system has a built-in threat detector that works on an unconscious level to continually look out for danger and keep us safe. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t understand threat on a scale; you’re either under threat or you’re safe. Therefore, we can find ourselves behaving dramatically when we least want to.
The work by author Deb Dana likens our nervous system to that of a ladder that breaks the nervous system into three steps.
1. The Ventral Vagal Complex – The state we’re in when we feel calm and connected to ourselves and others. This is the first step we use when we are under threat – we first try to communicate with the threat. If this doesn’t work, we move to the next step.
2. The Sympathetic System – escaping (flight) or overpower (fight) the threat.
3. The Dorsal Vagal Complex – freeze or disassociate from the threat.
The bottom two parts of the ladder are known as the survival states, and we unconsciously move into these states when we feel vulnerable (from a real or a perceived threat).
Where this can get in the way of our connections and relationships, is when our nervous system remembers unresolved past experiences like a difficult relationship with an ex, and applies those feelings to a current partner, even when the likeness is relatively subtle.
Unresolved trauma and stress can make our prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) shut down and activate our survival brain. Our nervous system goes into hyperarousal (constant hyper vigilance) or hypoarousal (foggy thinking, spacey, numb, hopeless) to make sure we stay safe.
If we can’t regulate ourselves back to a calm state, it can be extremely difficult share intimacy with people, and put forward our best personality traits and values. Having the clear mindedness to truly get to know someone and whether their values align with ours is so important to a potential relationship. So, it can be very distressing when we find ourselves at the mercy of old memories, triggering events and displaced anxiety or rage.
So how do you regulate your nervous system and give yourself space to develop intimacy with someone?
It’s amazing what a couple of long, deep breathes can do to help us find some calm and centre ourselves. We can even use the gentle rhythm of our breaths to focus and bring ourselves back to the current moment – and maybe leave any intrusive thoughts related to past experiences behind.
2. Find some movement
When you move your body, whether it’s jogging, dancing or a workout at the gym, you alter your physiology and shift the focus of your nervous system. As the saying goes ‘move a muscle, change a thought.’ Find movement that makes you feel good and make it work for you.
3. Learn to process past trauma
We all have things from our past that we need to work through so that we don’t carry those feelings with us into new experiences. This takes time and there is no quick fix, but certainly leaning on your support network, including finding professional support with a psychologist, can help this process.
4. Time out
When you recognise you’re becoming dysregulated (in other words unable to control your feelings and reactions), remove yourself from a partner’s side. Take a walk, or just go into another room and do some breathing exercises. In addition, ten minutes meditation can also help enormously (you can use an app for guided meditations). What you want to do is interrupt the emotional hijacking you’re experiencing, until the parasympathetic system kicks in and brings you back to a calm emotional baseline.