Stressed with uni? Here are 5 scientific ways to regulate your nervous system

nervous system
Having a healthy nervous system can help you deal with stress and anxiety. Source: Jack Guez/AFP

Life as an international student can be overwhelming. There’s a lot to contend with: from student visa issues to managing your finances and beating homesickness. It’s safe to say that your nervous system has been through a lot.

In August 2020, the Morneau Shepell and The Jed Foundation published a study that, among others, examined the mental health needs of international college students. As part of that study, a survey of more than 500 students found that international students were reaching out for support on various issues, including stress, depression, academic problems, anxiety, relationship, and social isolation.

A healthy nervous system helps us to relax in stressful situations. Conversely, a dysregulated nervous system places your body in a very stressful and high-alert state since your “fight or flight” response becomes overly active.

“The sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for managing stressful incidents and emergencies, becomes overly dominant,” Dr. Judy Ho, a licensed and triple board-certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, explains in an article with Well+Good. She also shares that the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you calm down, relax, and rest, is “unable to exert any significant control over how you are feeling, thinking, or behaving.” 

We draw on expert advice, as well as a few of our own, on the four methods to regulate your nervous system: 

nervous system

Graduation is not just an acknowledgement of a student’s academic capabilities, but how much they had to overcome and sacrifice for them to graduate. Source: Mandel Ngan/AFP

Top tips to regulate your nervous system

1. Follow the 30-90 rule

Dr. Caroline Leaf, a neuroscientist and mental health expert, said in an article with Well+Good that an initial biochemical and electrical surge lasts between 30 to 90 seconds when your subconscious and conscious mind are processing incoming information from an external stimulus. Think of when you are hearing something or listening in on a conversation.

That 30 to 90 second is where we tend to react impulsively. Instead of immediately responding, Leaf recommends practising the 30-90 second rule to regulate our nervous system by doing three things sequentially in a period of 60 to 90 seconds:

  • Firstly, breathe in deeply and focus on a strong exhale. Repeat three to five times.
  • Next, create some mental space by releasing the internal tension by yelling loudly (where appropriate) in a separate room, restroom or in your mind. 
  • Lastly, move your body around by stretching or doing burpees.  

2. Take deep breathes

In the same article, Dr. Ho explains: “Deep breaths help to restore control to the parasympathetic nervous system and send signals to your brain and body that no emergency is happening.”

She recommends doing a box breath exercise by inhaling for four counts, holding for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and holding for four counts. Do this exercise for a total of 10 rounds.

nervous system

There is a famous saying that goes, “Music is food for the soul.” Source: Ander Gillenea/AFP

3. Bringing in more positive thoughts

A symptom of an unregulated nervous system is feeling overwhelmed by negative thoughts. Leaf recommends we think of three or four positive thoughts to prevent us from overthinking.

These can be thoughts can be about movies or books you enjoy, happy memories, or future plans you’re excited about, she says.

Separately, another way to trigger positive thoughts would be to enjoy the company of your close friends. After all, research shows that having a few close friends while studying abroad can help to improve your physical and mental health

Music and games are other ways to help reduce stress and anxiety.

4. Visualise your emotions

When we feel disorientated from being overwhelmed, Ho explains that our feelings can be amplified, making it hard to get a hold of them.

She recommends visualising yourself, taking any emotion you’re feeling and placing it in front of you to help create boundaries between yourself and the feelings you are experiencing.

When you master the ability to visualise your emotion, you can manipulate the emotions you are feeling — making it easier to control your thoughts, reduce overthinking and regulate your nervous system.

nervous system

Dr. Caroline Leaf speaks during the MegaFest “Women Thou Art Loosed” closing session at Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on July 1, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. Source: Cooper Neill/Getty Images North America/Getty Images/AFP

5. Practice detailed mind wandering

Another way to harness visualisation’s power is by mapping a mental image of something that brought you joy. That can be a beautiful scenery you saw, an artwork you admired or a delicious meal you had.

Close your eyes and let your mind wander in the imagery. Relieve that experience for a couple of minutes or until you feel calm.

“Visualising activates the same areas in the brain as if you were actually carrying out the action because the brain follows the pattern of the mind,” Leaf explains. “When you visualise a happy cluster of memories, this generates a frequency in the brain that overrides the negative frequency the toxic stress caused and calms down the nervous system.”