The teen years can be a difficult time for many reasons. Teens are experiencing many physical changes, emotional ups and downs, and increased academic pressure. However, one of the best ways for teens to gain some control over their minds and bodies is by learning to regulate their nervous systems.
Individuals struggling with substance use or new to recovery often feel like they’re out of control. The substances they were abusing seem to have a life of their own. The person often feels powerless to resist their pull, especially when experiencing stress. This is because substances have hijacked their nervous systems and are “running the show” in the mind and body. However, with practice and intention, teens can learn to regain control and avoid using substances to cope.
The Nervous System
The nervous system has two main parts, the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The PNS is composed of ganglion and nerves. The central nervous system comprises the brain and spinal cord and is the system’s control center. The CNS is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. These structures work together to coordinate the body’s response to stimuli.
#1. Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response. When activated, it releases neurochemicals that prepare the body for physical activity. These neurochemicals include adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, which increase heart rate and blood pressure. The sympathetic nervous system also diverts blood flow from the digestive system and towards the muscles to ensure that the body has enough oxygen and energy to respond to a perceived threat.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is vital in regulating the body’s response to stress. Under normal circumstances, the SNS helps the body cope with stressful situations by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. However, chronic exposure to stress can lead to a condition known as sympathetically mediated adrenal insufficiency (SMAI), characterized by high levels of SNS activity. This can eventually lead to several health problems, including substance use disorder (SUD).
SUD is a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Many individuals with SUD also suffer from comorbid mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. It’s believed that the overactivation of the SNS may contribute to the development of SUD and other mental health disorders. Therefore, it’s essential to identify and treat individuals with SMAI to reduce their risk of developing SUD.
#2. Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) has the opposite effect and is responsible for the “rest and digest” response. This division of the nervous system slows the heart rate, increases digestive activity, and relaxes muscles. The PNS is activated when a person is resting or in a non-emergency situation.
While both divisions of the nervous system are important for survival, the balance between them can be disrupted in people who abuse substances. When someone uses drugs or alcohol, the PNS is suppressed while the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This constant arousal can lead to physical and psychological problems, such as anxiety, insomnia, and heart disease. In addition, chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system can cause changes in brain structure and function that increase the risk of developing an addiction.
Chronic exposure to stress can lead to a condition known as sympathetically mediated adrenal insufficiency (SMAI), characterized by high levels of SNS activity. This can eventually lead to several health problems, including SUD. Consequently, understanding the role of the PNS in regulating stress and arousal is essential for developing effective treatments. The good news is that we’re learning more effective ways of activating this system, which can empower teens as they know how to calm themselves down. Moreover, this ability to self-regulate dramatically increases their chances of sustained sobriety.
Activating the PNS
One of the best ways to activate the PNS is through deep breathing. When we take slow, deep breaths, it signals to the brain that everything is okay. This, in turn, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to relax. Another way to start the PNS is through mindful meditation. Meditation allows us to focus on the present moment, which can help reduce stress and anxiety. As a result, we can better calm down and make rational choices.
Many of the skills used in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are focused on reducing cortisol and adrenaline levels. They can mediate the nervous system when an individual is under stress. Counting, distraction with pleasant activities, and engaging in creative endeavors are all ways to control what’s happening in the body. With practice and intention, these skills can become well-learned and nearly automatic.
For teens in recovery, it’s crucial to learn how to regulate the nervous systems. This can help them effectively manage uncomfortable feelings without returning to substance use. The nervous system is responsible for the body’s response to stress, and when it’s not functioning properly, the individual may feel overwhelmed and turn to substances in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. However, by learning how to regulate the nervous system, teens can effectively manage their stress levels and remain sober. There are many different techniques that can be used to regulate the nervous system, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga. Counting and distraction can also be helpful interventions. By teaching teens these techniques, we can help them stay sober and reduce their risk of relapse. For more information on teaching teens self-regulation, call Clearfork Academy today at (888) 966-8604.